Monday, January 31, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech basketball's Erick Green shows his mettle

BLACKSBURG -- The whistle blew, and everybody stopped and looked around. Time out? Foul away from the ball? What?

Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green quit dribbling, turned and looked at official Sean Corbin. The ref held up both palms and extended all his fingers.

A 10-second violation. Turnover, Tech.

Over on the bench, Tech coach Seth Greenberg was mystified. He had looked away from the action briefly -- "action" being a relative term; his point guard was just bringing the ball upcourt, after all -- but when an assistant coach informed him that Green hadn't gotten across midcourt in time, the coach couldn't believe it.

"I was like, 'Huh?' " Greenberg said. "How is that possible?"

It shouldn't have been possible. Green wasn't pressured. He wasn't trapped. The sophomore just took a little too long, that's all, and it cost him. And 20 seconds later, when Miami hit a 3-pointer to pull within one with 2:56 remaining, it looked like the kind of mistake that might cost the Hokies this game.

You learn a lot about people at times like this. And what we learned about Green over the next three minutes was that he's not easily rattled.

Green scored five of Tech's final 11 points -- including an and-one jumper on the very next possession -- as the Hokies held off Miami 72-68. It was the kind of quick recovery that would not have happened last year or even at the beginning of this one. It was the kind of clutch effort he and his teammates could not muster in last week's loss to Georgia Tech, when mistakes built on each other in the final minutes.

It was the kind of performance a leader provides.

"Erick knows we've got a lot of confidence in him," Greenberg said. "He's got to earn confidence. It's one thing to say, 'All right, Erick, you're the guy.' But he's earned confidence by the way he's played.

"I think that's bigger than anything else. You can empower someone, but then that person has to go and get some things done. And I think the more things he gets done, the better off we're going to become."

The Hokies have been better off ever since Green stepped into the starting lineup against Penn State on Dec. 12. They've won 10 of 12 games since then.

Green has scored in double figures in all but one of them. Not coincidentally, that was one they lost. Green shot 3-for-15 from the floor against Georgia Tech, finishing with nine points.

The next day, he watched film of his mistakes. He then went to the gym for an hour during lunch, practicing coming off ball screens and shooting.

"As a point guard, the ball's going to be in my hands," Green said. "I have to make sure I make the right read, make sure I make the right decision. At the end, in crunch time, if something goes wrong, I've got to take the blame for it. It's my fault if we didn't have it in the right person's hands."

This time, the right person's hands were his own. That extra practice in the gym paid off with 2:32 remaining, when Victor Davila set a ball screen for Green, who absorbed a foul from Garrius Adams while draining a 15-footer.

Green hit that free throw, then nailed another pair two possessions later to push the lead to five with 1:37 left.

"My confidence right now is so high," Green said. "I'm really proud of myself that I'm not letting things bug me. If I miss a shot, I'm not putting my head down like I did last year or at the beginning of this year. I'm going to put the next shot up and feel like it's going to go in. I'm going to shoot it if I'm open, no hesitation."

What happens from here is tough to predict. The Hokies travel to N.C. State on Wednesday night. That's always been a tough venue for them.

Yet Green and his teammates will head there with confidence -- some of it innate, but most of it earned.

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