Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech couldn't afford to lose at home

BLACKSBURG -- Some games are important because of all you have to gain -- a postseason berth, a leap in the standings, a high-profile victory over a ranked team.

Others mean the world because of what you can't afford to lose.

For the Virginia Tech men's basketball team, this was one of the latter. In front of a weather-diminished crowd on a snowy January afternoon, the Hokies were shielding their hope. Guarding their identity.

Protecting their season.

Maybe that's an overly dramatic way of viewing Tech's 71-59 victory over Florida State. It's not meant to be that. It's just reality that a team stripped to eight healthy scholarship players -- particularly a team that never had much margin of error to begin with -- has a different agenda than one with unlimited weapons.

The Hokies understood the possibilities here.

"Oh and two," point guard Erick Green said, "would not have been good."

For a lot of reasons. The obvious one is that they would have fallen into the ACC basement all by their lonesome. Florida State has vastly different personnel than Tech, but in the macro view the teams are similar. Both entered the season intent on making the NCAA tournament, and both believe they have enough talented starters to challenge for a bid. These are the coin-flip games that can loom large in March.

Just as important, though, is the vibe around this team -- in the stands, on campus, in the community. A season that began with such optimism has taken a series of hits, mostly injury-related.

Tech's motto this year is "I'm all in," but it would be easy for many outside the program to fold at 0-2 in the ACC. Some already had.

"I'm not surprised that people counted us out," senior guard Malcolm Delaney said. "I would, too. A lot of people got down on us because we're not that deep, but we've got people that can play."

They showed that against the big, physical, brick-firing Seminoles. Jeff Allen dominated like he sometimes can, scoring 24 points, ripping down 11 rebounds and even drawing a key second-half charge. Green ran the point alertly and, along with Terrell Bell, excelled defensively atop a rare 2-3 zone. Delaney made up for a rough shooting day by playing a turnover-free game with 13 points, three assists, three steals and five rebounds. Freshman Tyrone Garland came off the bench to hit a big 3.

And everybody played enthusiastic defense and hit their free throws -- two musts for the long-term success of the Hokies.

In other words, depth was not an issue. At least not in this game.

That, more than anything, was what Tech had to prove.

"I think the only thing would be foul trouble," said Green, when asked how depth problems could hinder this team in the coming weeks. "Other than that, we're good. We're all in shape. We all get up and down the court. If somebody needs a break, we've got people who can fill in. It's not even a drop when somebody comes off the court."

Each of the five starters played at least 32 minutes, which should be the norm. The game was tight throughout, which should be the norm.

Given that, nobody was ready to declare the Hokies anything more than resilient on Saturday.

"We proved we could win one game in the ACC," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "And now we've got 14 games left. That's what we proved. There's no 'We've arrived.' We haven't arrived. We've proved that for one night we could compete at an ACC level, share the ball, defend and win a home game."

One they had to win.

Or more accurately, one they couldn't afford to lose.

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