Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: This was wrong kind and worst kind of loss

BLACKSBURG -- This wasn't the night to talk about tying a school record for wins or the promise of next year or any of the other positives that developed over the past three months.

It's hard to assess yourself when you've forgotten who you are.

The Hokies tried to look in the mirror after Wednesday's 79-72 loss to Rhode Island in the NIT quarterfinals, and all they could find were shadows. Malcolm wasn't Malcolm anymore. Dorenzo wasn't Dorenzo. Jeff wasn't Jeff.

These guys got to the brink of the NCAA tournament and within a whisper of New York City by playing a certain way. Then, with so much at stake, they lost it.

"I can deal with losing if we play the right way," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "I don't think we played the right way the last 15 minutes."

That's the stretch everyone will target, and for good reason. The Hokies closed the game by making only two of their last 20 field goal attempts. They blew a 12-point lead in less time than it takes to make a pot of coffee. They missed key free throws. They allowed penetration. They whiffed on box outs.

They chose the quick shot over the prudent one, and it burned them.

"I think we defended ourselves, quite honestly," Greenberg said. "We weren't as poised and patient as we've been down the stretch. As well as we executed the other night down the stretch, we didn't tonight."

Truth be told, though, the Hokies never looked themselves. Even before the drought that doomed them, they were playing like a different team. One of the best units in the country at taking care of the ball, Tech suddenly turned sloppy. The Hokies turned the ball over on their first possession of the game and their last possession of the first half. In between, they piled up nine more turnovers.

The last one was brutal. Simply needing to kill 0.7 seconds to head to the locker room with a four-point edge, Jeff Allen fired an inbounds pass clear over everybody and past the opposing sideline. It gave the Rams a chance for one last possession on Tech's half of the floor, and they capitalized, with Delroy James converting a lob pass into a buzzer-beating bucket.

So instead of sprinting off the court to cheers from an amped-up crowd, the Hokies departed in silence.

"Too many," point guard Malcolm Delaney said of the miscues. "We don't turn over the ball that much."

"I think we were trying to play too fast," Allen said. "We weren't playing our game."

The crazy thing is, the Hokies shot 63 percent in the first half. That's not their game, either. But when their shots are dropping like that, they need to be up 20, not two.

The Hokies actually jacked that percentage up to 70 about 5 minutes into the second half -- before it all fell apart.

Neither Greenberg nor the players chose to disclose what the team discussed after the game. That's understandable. Better to sleep on some of those initial thoughts anyway.

"From November to today, I was probably more proud of this team than any team I've ever coached as far as how far they came as a team," Greenberg said. "As a team that trusted each other. Relied on each other. Different guys stepped up different nights and made plays to help us win.

"And then tonight, we just didn't do those things that we normally do. I don't know if it was the stage. I don't know if it was pressure. There are so many factors that go into it."

The Rams were a factor, too, of course. They made big shots, got big rebounds, and now they're off to New York.

The Hokies, meanwhile, will have a film session on Monday. They have no opponent to scout. Instead, they'll watch themselves -- and try to remember who they are in time for practice next fall.

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