Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: A wonderful finish to a perfect day

BLACKSBURG -- This was a daylong celebration, from the moment students began lining up for the "College GameDay" zaniness until the final buzzer about 14 hours later.

This was a salute to relevance that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

A day that began with an impressive display of program support ended exactly the way it should have, with the fans streaming onto the court to celebrate Virginia Tech's 64-60 win over top-ranked Duke.

It ended with Jeff Allen -- quiet ol' Jeff Allen, the guy who actually declined to answer one of the Newlywed Game-style questions earlier in the day -- roaring toward the rafters at the center of the mayhem.

Good thing today is Sunday. A lot of people around here will be popping Tylenol as they recover from the kind of hoops party we haven't seen in years.

The Cassell Coliseum scoreboard pretty much summed this one up. Under the "64" for the Hokies, there were the scoring totals for the five starters -- 18 (Allen), 12 (Terrell Bell), 12 (Erick Green), 11 (Victory Davila), 11 (Malcolm Delaney).

It was going to take them all to get this done, and they delivered. Even in a rough shooting game for Delaney, he contributed in critical moments, hitting the 3-pointer with 2 minutes to go that put the Hokies up 5, then snagging a rebound on the other end on Duke's next possession.

This was an upset, but not an unthinkable one. Just before tipoff, as the "Enter Sandman" riff rocked this place, coach Seth Greenberg paced in front of his bouncing players, like a man who knows something nobody else does.

What he knows is that the Hokies haven't missed the NCAA tournament in recent years because they stink in games like this. They've missed because of the Miamis and N.C. States and Boston Colleges.

Duke? They show up for Duke. They don't always beat Duke, but they show up for Duke.

ESPN "GameDay" analysts Bob Knight and Jay Bilas both picked Duke during the morning show, which makes sense. But they both cited "too much experience" as the main factor, which makes a lot less sense.

Duke started two seniors and three sophomores. The Hokies? Three seniors, a junior and a sophomore -- the same lineup components that carried them to their most recent NCAA tournament appearance in 2007.

What set that '07 team apart was games just like this, contests with a lot of eyeballs on them and plenty of inherent pressure. And, oh, how this group yearned for its own moment like that.

Two sequences made this upset possible. The first was Tech's 9-4 run to start the game. It was a minor spurt, sure, but it had to happen to keep this sellout crowd believing.

The second came midway in the second half, when Duke had seized the momentum and taken a 51-45 lead. On back-to-back possessions, Kyle Singler had wide-open 3s. He missed them both.

Perhaps there was a chance.

Davila's contributions can't be understated. It was is follow-up dunk that brought the Hokies within 55-52 and set up Bell's tying bomb. And it was Davila who stood his ground and forced Singler to lose the ball in the paint a few possessions later. Allen responded with a layup to put Tech up four and turn this place into bedlam.

Ultimately, this night was for those people piling out of the stands. In the morning, they made signs. In the evening, they made noise.

And in the end, their team made them proud.

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