The Ones That Haunt You

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I’ve
been writing about Virginia Tech sports for twelve years now, so I’ve
encountered my fair share of games like this: close, painful, excruciating
losses, the ones that stay with you. They are difficult to swallow, these
losses. They haunt you for hours, days, weeks, months … sometimes years.

They are difficult to write about, these games. I always search for the right
thing to say, trying to capture the moment with a bittersweet, poignant turn of
phrase that will, I hope, make you feel better. It’s easy to write about the big
wins; I sit at the keyboard and the words flow. But in the wake of one of these
losses, the effort is halting, jerky, and inconsistent.

I always go back to that 1999 national championship game in football. For
three hours, Michael Vick put on the Greatest Show on Earth, and in the span of
those three hours, he put Virginia Tech football on the national map and
recharted the course not just of Hokie football, but of Hokie athletics. Frank
Beamer had spent over a decade setting the table, but on that night in New
Orleans, Vick served up the gourmet meal. Virginia Tech veered off in a new
direction, and we haven’t been the same since that night.

But years later, the cold hard fact is this: Virginia Tech lost that game.

In Frank Beamer’s book “Turn up the Wick,” he says of that game,
“It was nice that people appreciated our efforts and patted our backs, but
the fact was, we lost the game.”

I feel that way about this game. Great effort, and I’m proud of the Hokies.
They wrote their own little chapter in the storied history of the ACC
tournament, and they might use this game as a springboard to something greater.
But they lost.

Think about if they had won. Just for a second, think about the
possibilities. But only for a second, because you don’t want to think about it
much longer than that.

I had an interesting perspective on this game. As I’ve mentioned on this site
a few times, I had a family obligation Saturday that I felt I couldn’t miss. It
was something for one of my kids, and now that it’s over, I’m really glad I did
it. I’m glad I could be there for my youngest son on Saturday.

But it meant missing the game. I couldn’t stay in Charlotte to watch it, and
I couldn’t even see it on TV. So throughout the day, Chris Coleman called me
with score updates, not very frequent, but enough to know that the Hokies were
holding their own against the Heels, and in fact led for a good portion of the
game.

Long story short: I walked into Dick’s Sporting Goods in the New River Valley
Mall late in the game, to find fans clustered around the televisions in the
store. My last update had been that Tech was winning 59-56 with 3:29 left, so I
knew the game was close to being over.

What’s the score? I asked. 66-66.

How much time is left? 21 seconds.

Who’s got the ball? North Carolina.

So I stood in Dick’s Sporting Goods and watched the end of the game. All
afternoon long, the only live play I saw in the entire game was Tyler
Hansbrough’s game winning shot.

The loss really got to me, more so than the average loss. More so than Sean
Dockery’s 45-footer a couple years ago. More so than most losses I’ve had to
swallow. I’m not sure why, but I think it had to do with not just the
opportunity to beat the #1 team in the land (been there, done that), but the
opportunity to do it on the grand stage of the ACC tournament.

It was not to be, though, and here’s where the “interesting
perspective” part comes in. Had I watched this game live, not knowing the
outcome, I can tell you that there were two moments where I would have thought
the Hokies had it won. The first moment was Deron Washington’s monster alley-oop
dunk over UNC’s Danny Green, off a Malcolm Delaney inbounds pass. Tech led 59-52
with 6:17 left, and it looked like Tech had seized control.

After UNC mounted a comeback instead, to tie it at 61, ice-cold Delaney
drained a three pointer that gave the Hokies a 64-61 lead with 2:20 left. Again,
I would have thought Tech was going to close it out.

But I was watching a recording, not the live game, and when you know the good
guys are going to ultimately lose by two points, all of the little things haunt
you: the missed open shots, the fumbled passes, the bobbled rebounds, the
unlucky bounces, the silly turnovers, the bad calls … all of it. Because had
any one of those things gone the other way, the outcome might have been
different.

Just one little tipped pass, just one little blown layup, just one little
stumble. You know the drill. I am not going to list all the moments in
this game that could have altered the outcome. They are legion, though, and each
one brings regret.

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon from 1962 that captures this feeling
perfectly. For three panels, Linus and Charlie Brown are sitting on a step,
brooding quietly about something. In the final panel, Charlie Brown stands up
and cries out, ” Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet
higher???”

Charlie Brown is referring to Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants
hitting a hard line drive that was the final out of the 1962 World Series. If
McCovey had just hit the ball three feet higher, he would have driven in two
runs that would have won the Series for the Giants. Instead, he lined out and
the Giants lost.

Charlie Brown’s lament captures the frustration of millions of sports fans
whose teams have come oh-so-close, and it captures the way I feel about this
game. If A.D. Vassallo could have just hit one of those wide open threes he had
in the second half, if the ball had bounced towards a Hokie instead of to a spot
on the floor where Tyler Hansbrough could retrieve it and hit the game winner
… if, if, if.

Enough of dwelling on the loss. I’ve learned over the years that TSL’s
readers don’t like to roll around in the muck of defeat, so let’s move on. The
question becomes, even in a loss, did the Hokies do enough to get in the
tournament? You know, the tournament?

It depends upon whether the selection committee sees the Hokies with their
minds or their hearts. Virginia Tech was firmly on the bubble going into this
game, so any committee member worth his salt checked this one out on ESPN to
form an opinion on the Hokies.

A committee member’s mind will go with the numbers, which mostly work against
the Hokies: An RPI of 54, 1-7 against the top 50, and three bad losses at Penn State, at ODU, and
at Richmond.

But a committee member’s heart will see a team that is 5-2 over its last
seven games, with losses against #19 RPI Clemson on the road and against #2 RPI
UNC, by a combined three points. The heart sees a team playing great basketball
right now and realizes that those three bad losses all occurred in the first
half of Tech’s season, while six quality top 100 wins have happened since then.

My heart puts the Hokies in. But my mind knows that NCAA selection committees
have not historically been kind to Virginia Tech.

Seth Greenberg engaged in a little hyperbole after Saturday’s loss, saying,
“If you don’t think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country,
you’re certifiably insane.” Right or wrong, Seth’s quote made noise around
the country and got the Hokies air time in a college basketball media
environment that gets pretty cluttered this time of year. Seth elbowed the
Hokies to the front of the line with that sound bite, even if just for a moment.

Just beyond midnight, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt played that quote for ESPN.com
Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi, and Lunardi wouldn’t commit, saying,
“[Virginia Tech] could be in … they could be out.” Just a few
seconds later, a graphic flashed up on screen, with Lunardi showing VT as his
“first team out” of the tourney.

So we sit and we wait, but not for long, because the selection show is Sunday
at 6 p.m. A bid would be critical for this young team, because it would get them
acclimated to — and demanding of themselves — participation in the tournament.
These guys will make future NCAA tournaments, but I want them to play in this
one, so when they play in more of them down the road, they’ll have that
experience under their belt.

Besides, if Tech doesn’t make this year’s tournament, I don’t want to
find myself asking, Charlie Brown-style, “Why couldn’t A.D. Vassallo have
made just one more three-pointer???”

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