Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Sometimes it's just enough

BLACKSBURG -- Put this win up there with any Virginia Tech has gotten this year. Up there with Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest. Put the Cassell Coliseum atmosphere -- the noise, the drama, the spirit -- up there with that double-overtime game against Maryland.

Merely the NIT? Don't tell that to the 6,983 who witnessed it live, the coach who left the court near tears and the nine players who somehow managed to rally for a 65-63 victory over Connecticut on Monday night.

"This group is different," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "It really is. I'm so happy for them."

Dorenzo Hudson's 17-foot jumper with 14 seconds left will be the moment we will all remember, but so much more went into this. There was Terrell Bell's forced turnover near midcourt eight seconds before that shot, Jeff Allen's screen that got Hudson loose on that curl, Allen's block on the other end, Victor Davila's free throws that kept the team in it.

And that was merely the final two minutes.

"It seemed like all the stuff that we worked on over the summer coming into the season, we pretty much had to use it tonight," Allen said. "We had to play to the last minute. The defensive style, waking up at 6 in the morning, all that, it all paid off tonight."

And that's really the moral to the story here. The Hokies' fortunes have changed a lot the past month -- first they were out of the NCAA tournament, then in it, then back out again, then the talk of a snub-seeking nation for a day -- but the fundamental tenets of this group have remained constant. They bring their best. Sometimes it's enough, sometimes it isn't, but they don't leave the floor with questions swirling about their identity or effort.

To understand why this one felt so big, you didn't need to see the normally reserved Allen pumping his fist after UConn's final shot went astray. You didn't need to hear the crowd chanting Greenberg's name as he approached the ESPN cameras. You didn't need to look at the bracket and see that Tech is one home win (over Rhode Island on Wednesday night) from earning a trip to New York.

You just needed to see the first half.

The Huskies have been inconsistent this season, but nobody could argue against their talent. Waves of athletic big men -- 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 -- popped in and out of the lineup. Their guards all showed quickness and shooting touch.

At one point in the first half, probable first-round NBA draft pick Stanley Robinson dunked so hard that he lost his gum. That put UConn up 28-16.

The Hokies appeared overmatched. Malcolm Delaney -- whose shot was off from the start and never really recovered -- threw up his hands in disgust after one of his passes whizzed out of bounds. Defensively, the Hokies bit on shot fakes and failed to box out effectively. The Huskies went to intermission with 11 offensive rebounds and a five-point lead.

The Hokies, it seemed, were done. Beaten by a bigger, better team, like when Mississippi ended their season in the NIT two years ago.

And then it all changed. Hudson -- who's done nothing at practice but ride an exercise bike and practice form shooting as he's nursed a bone bruise in his foot -- made 7-of-10 shots in the second half to finish with 27 points, his second-best scoring output of the year. Delaney finally made a couple of field goals to go with his nine assists. Guards and forwards worked together to control the defensive boards. Davila canned four key foul shots in the final two minutes.

Then Tech took a timeout and drew up the game-winner.

"It was the play we wanted," Hudson said, "and the shot we got."

And the win they earned, equal to any that came before it this season.

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