Friday, January 28, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Lack of results seals fate for Dunkenberger

BLACKSBURG -- They don't boo. They don't carry signs calling for the coach's head.

Even after a game like this, another blowout loss, some still stand and clap as the players leave the court.

Women's basketball fans -- at least around here -- are more polite than most. But they aren't blind. They have to know what they are witnessing: The slow, painful end of Beth Dunkenberger's tenure as the coach of Virginia Tech.

This isn't something anybody wanted to see. Dunkenberger is easy to pull for. The former valedictorian at Shawsville High has her dream job here, and she's pouring everything she's got into it.

And it is not nearly enough.

It's over.

Thursday night's 78-57 loss to No. 25 Georgia Tech at Cassell Coliseum was Dunkenberger's latest step toward the exit. It wasn't as embarrassing as Sunday's 72-37 defeat at Virginia -- the Hokies clearly played hard throughout this time and cut down on turnovers that have plagued them all season -- but it still had several of the nettlesome characteristics of Dunkenberger's teams over the past few years.

Poor shooting. Inconsistent defense. An inability to halt an opponent's big run.

The loss was the seventh in a row for Tech (9-11), including all six in conference play. The Hokies hadn't lost seven in a row since the Carter administration. They've never dropped eight straight -- something almost sure to happen Sunday when they travel to No. 14 North Carolina, a talented team that ought to be able to name the score.

It's a desperate situation. A crisis of confidence, as President Carter might call it.

Dunkenberger is in the last year of a contract that pays her more than $200,000 annually. Athletic director Jim Weaver said before the season that he was seeking "measured improvement" from the program this season as he evaluates the coach's future.

And by almost any measure, this team is worse than last year's. In ACC play, the Hokies are getting thumped by an average of 20 points per game. They entered this one last in scoring (47.6), free throw percentage (.484), field goal percentage (.356) and field goal percentage defense (.453) in league games.

"We obviously know that we haven't won a game in the ACC yet," sophomore guard Alyssa Fenyn said. "Obviously that bothers us, but we can still come out and play every game with intensity. When it comes down to it, it is us players out there playing the game."

But it's Dunkenberger recruiting them, teaching them, motivating them. And with her job status being what it is, it's natural to think this could wear on them as Tech plays out the final month of the season.

"I sure hope not," Dunkenberger said. "Because I'm a teacher. I told them after the last game that I want to teach them how to treat each other, first and foremost, how to play hard second-most and then basketball third. They can't worry about me. All we can worry about is each game -- game by game getting better and improving...

"Yes, we want to win a championship, and yes, we'll continue to work towards that.

"But at the end of the day, it's not about Beth Dunkenberger. It's about Virginia Tech and these young ladies that have a chance to put on that jersey and represent this university. When they fight and they play hard and they play together, I'm proud, win or lose."

Alas, it's mostly lose. The old 20-win threshold -- crossed every year from 1997-2004 under Bonnie Henrickson -- has been reached just once in Dunkenberger's seven seasons. The Hokies could win their final 10 games of the regular season and still not reach it this year. They haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2006. They're now 8-40 in the ACC over the past four seasons.

You get the idea. And so does everybody in this building, even if they're too polite to express it.

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