Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies finally have their moment

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- This was the call they never get, the moment they can never savor, the combination of relief and ecstasy that always seems to go the other team's way at this tournament.

This time, though, it was theirs.

The Virginia Tech Hokies beat Florida State 52-51 in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday night. I think. The officials said so. So did Tim Brando right in front of me on press row. "Good call," the longtime TV man said. "No doubt."

Good enough.

Honestly? Live, it looked like Derwin Kitchen had slain them. Just like Tyler Hansbrough had a few years back. His long jump shot from the right corner splashed through the net, all the FSU fans celebrated, and Tech coach Seth Greenberg fell to his knees like we've seen him do so many times before at moments like this.

There was one guy who seemed to see it differently though: Erick Green. Immediately, the Tech guard began waving his arms, like he knew the shot was still in Kitchen's hands.

Seemed like wishful thinking on his part, though, and that would be understandable. He stood to be the Tech hero if it were disallowed. After missing 11 of his first 12 shots from the field, he'd caught a pass near the top of the key and fired an open jumper with under 5 seconds left. It'd gone, and a one-point Tech deficit was suddenly a one-point Tech lead.

So of course he'd wave his arms, but the officials didn't have to have the same suspicions. This time, they did. And during a delay of over a minute, with Seminoles fans chanting "F-S-U!" over and over, they stuck their faces up to the monitor and watched it again and again.

They then stepped back and waved it off. Victory for Tech.

It was a dramatic finish to an otherwise ugly game that took nearly 30 minutes to get tight. For the Hokies, starts don't get much more ominous than they one they had. Tech's first pass in the half-court set skipped straight out of bounds. Greenberg had to call a timeout just 41 seconds into the game because he didn't like something his team was doing. Jeff Allen -- the one guy who can't pick up early fouls if this team's to succeed -- tallied a pair in the opening five minutes.

"I think as long as we get off to a great start," Green had said in the locker room late Thursday night, "we'll be fine."

They didn't, and they weren't -- at least for the rest of the first half. Instead, everybody struggled. Tech's two guards combined to shoot 1-for-15 from the field. The bigs got in foul trouble and got abused in the paint.

It wound up being one of the most unsightly halves of basketball you'll see at any level: 18 percent shooting and zero fast-break points for the Hokies, who'd credited their run-and-gun style for allowing them to defeat Georgia Tech the previous night.

But the seniors came to life after intermission. Malcolm Delaney and Allen hit big shots to keep them in it. Then Manny Atkins drained a 3 to tie the game at 49 with 3:05 left.

Two possessions later, something fitting happened. Finally the fans were into it, finally standing, finally allowed to get the "Let's Go Hokies!" chant going without turning red with embarrassment.

The game was tied with 2:11 to go.

The ball was Tech's, and so was momentum.

Victor Davila caught a pass near the basket, put up the shot, got stuck. Yep, stuck.

Right there between the rim and the glass. And we all just stared at it as it sat there. Is there any event more anticlimactic in basketball than THAT?

But for so much of this night, that was this game. And for so much of this season, that's been this team. In? Out? Somewhere in between?

In now. Finally. On the kind of moment that had put them out so many times before.

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