Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies don't play horseshoes

ATLANTA - The ball bounced down the court, with two freshmen giving chase, one from each team. You knew who was going to prevail in that one, right? When winning the footrace could mean winning the game?

Not the Virginia Tech guy. Not this year.

Duke's Austin Rivers scooped up the ball in stride. Tech's Robert Brown gave a desperate swipe. Layup. Foul.


That was the last big play in Duke's 60-56 victory over the Hokies in the ACC quarterfinals, and it pretty much encapsulated the 2011-12 Tech season. The Hokies were always chasing something, always striving hard, but always a little too sloppy and one step slow.

This season will be remembered as The Year of the Close Loss. Friday marked the eighth time the Hokies fell to an ACC opponent by four points or fewer. They lost another by five in overtime.

This game didn't sting quite as much, perhaps, given that Tech never led in the second half and didn't have an opportunity to make a game-winning shot at the buzzer. Besides, this was Duke, and you're supposed to lose to Duke in the ACC Tournament.

But it seemed a fitting way to close the campaign. Once again, Tech was good enough to hang, but not good enough to win.

"How do you learn to make good decisions?" Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "You've got to make some bad ones. If you learn from those, then I think that hopefully when you're put in that same situation next time, you're in position to seize that moment. I think that's hopefully what we're going to learn from this season."

By early February, when the Hokies dropped to 1-6 in the ACC, that's what this season became: an opportunity to build. Tech wanted to win every game in the second half of its conference schedule, of course, but developing the younger players became the most important goal.

"Experience," junior guard Erick Green said. "Honestly, I really believe it. It teaches the young guys, man, it's 40 minutes you've got to play hard. It ain't no high school where you can play half the game and think you're the man or whatever. It's 40 minutes we've got to play hard.

"I'm proud of these young guys because they fought hard. How many freshmen can dig down and have as many close games as a squad? Not many."

Green will be back to lead next year's team, and there are signs that the Hokies could be good. Brown closed with a 16-point, six-rebound performance against the Blue Devils. He shot the ball confidently but made enough mistakes - both in this game and in the ones that preceded it - to give him plenty of motivation heading into the offseason.

"Probably my handles right now," Brown said, when asked about his emphasis for improvement. "Turning the ball over too much รข? that's what I'm going to start with. And also I've got to work on my entire game - pull-up jumper, jump shot, defense, my whole repertoire."

Fellow freshman Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed 12 rebounds against Duke, but he too must improve his decision-making. Sophomore Cadarian Raines struggled against the Blue Devils but showed as much promise as anybody in the final weeks, giving Tech hope that it will have a consistent low-post threat next year.

There's no way to guarantee that all the young guys will get better. There's no assurance that the Hokies will make more late-game plays to earn wins next season. But they're viewing the pain they felt so often this year as a necessary step, a one-time initiation into college basketball.

"All those close losses, we've already gotten through them," Brown said. "They say you learn by experience. If that's our experience, then next year hopefully we won't need any more."

One would hope.

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