Friday, March 09, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: At last, Hokies have plenty of reasons to smile

ATLANTA - This one had all the usual stuff: the fist pumps, the scoreboard table poundings, the air balls, the shot-clock violations, the shake-your-head turnovers, the postgame smiles.

Wait a minute ...  the smiles? In Virginia Tech's locker room? After a close game? Couldn't be.

But look at them there - Dorian Finney-Smith and Cadarian Raines and Jarell Eddie and on and on and on. Smiling.

Good for them. That's really all you can say after a game like this: Good for them. There was some ugliness, and there was some tension, and there was some doubt as the final minutes ticked down. But in the end, there was a victory, 68-63, over favored Clemson in the first round of the ACC Tournament.

"It feels really good," Finney-Smith said, "to see everybody smile."

They earned those grins by doing things they hadn't been able to do so many times this season. The Hokies got back-to-back 3-pointers from Dorenzo Hudson and Erick Green to turn a tie game into a six-point lead. They hit a floater in the lane when it mattered most. They made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 35 seconds.

From the outside, it was easy to look at Tech's tenuous lead and think it would disappear, somehow tumble into the black hole that this season had become. Yet the "here we go again" mentality never invaded those who matter most - the guys out there playing.

"I don't think anybody had that mindset," freshman guard Robert Brown said. "If they did, nobody showed it. We knew that the whole season would come down to these last seconds, so we were pretty much prepared for it. It wasn't 'Here we go again.' I was more like, 'It's time to get a win.'"

And what a win it was. The five-point margin made this Tech's most decisive victory since - wait for it - Dec. 31 at Oklahoma State.

Yep. Last year!

"Oh, no, it doesn't feel like a blowout," Eddie said with a smile. "It feels just as intense, just as heart-dropping at the end."

Hudson and Green - the only guys who saw action Thursday with any prior ACC Tournament experience - were the heroes, combining for 43 points on 13-of-23 shooting. Hudson looked particularly inspired, delivering his highest point total this season against an ACC foe (19).

The greatest gift the senior could have given this program was another day to gain experience, and that's what he did. The young players who will set the course for the future need as many tests as they can get.

"I can see the maturity in just the way they approach the game and how they're able to perform under pressure situations," Eddie said of the freshmen. "I definitely see the growth. Coach tells us all the time that those freshmen aren't freshmen anymore. They have the court experience that they need to not be bright-eyed deer in headlights at the end of the game."

Could you blame them, though, if they were a little timid entering those huddles? It's not like they can't hear coach Seth Greenberg pounding the scorer's table after Clemson snares an offensive rebound.

Apparently, that anger cools when the whistle blows.

"He's usually positive in the huddle," Brown said. "It might not seem that way, the way he's screaming. But everything he says is positive. He keeps us upbeat, keeps us motivated, keeps telling us that we're going to fight through and get this win. That's what we did."

Multiple timeouts near the end of the game provided plenty of opportunities for discussion. The message was the same one Greenberg has been giving them all year.

"Just one more play," Eddie said. "One more stop. One more loose ball. One more rebound. He's just telling us, 'We're going to make this happen. All we need is one more play out of everybody on the floor.'"

This time, they got it.

Good for them.

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