Hokies Still on a Roll as NIT Opens

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I don’t know about you, but I got the message pretty loud and clear Wednesday
night: A lot of people make fun of the NIT, calling it cute names like “Not
Invited Tournament,” but the Virginia Tech Hokies and their fans are ready
to rock it. Tech’s 94-62 win over Morgan State was all kinds of fun, and the
Hokies are more than ready to do it two more times in Cassell, then head to New
York.

Hokie fans have a soft spot in their heart for the NIT. While a perennial
NCAA participant like UNC or Duke might sneer at it, Tech followers have some
great memories of the NIT stored away in their collective consciousness. The
Hokies’ 1973 NIT championship was an awesome feat, topped off by a stirring,
last-second win over Notre Dame. Tech’s 1995 NIT championship was an unexpected
run to the title and propelled the Hokies to the 1996 NCAA tournament. 1995 and
1996 were the only time Virginia Tech basketball showed postseason life from
1987-2004.

The NIT is generally not fully embraced by its participants and their fans.
Tuesday night, for example, only 2,830 fans attended FSU’s game against Akron in
Tallahassee. (Emboldened by that strong show of support, FSU charged out onto
the court, fell behind early, and lost. Crickets chirped, and in the distance a
lone dog barked forlornly before falling silent.) 3,882 fans watched Maryland
top Minnesota at Minnesota. 10,536 attended Syracuse’s win over Robert Morris,
but in the 33,000-seat Carrier Dome, the upper deck was devoid of life.

In Blacksburg, though, Tech fans have a history of supporting the NIT by
turning out in large numbers. Who can forget the packed house that erupted when
Travis Jackson hit his last-second three-pointer to beat New Mexico State in
1995? 7,416 Hokies watched an awakening Tech team beat Temple in 2005, and in
this opening-round game against Morgan State, 9,628 fans nearly filled Cassell
to the corners.

It was loud, and it was fun.

Nothing cranks up the atmosphere like general admission seating and a healthy
helping of students all around the arena, not just packed in behind one basket.
My seat was four rows up at center court but was barely used, as the crowd
around me stood the entire game, forcing me to stand, too. That’s good with me;
I love standing up. There were probably 5,000 students present, and that
ratchets up the intensity and the enjoyment of the game.

After getting off to a slow start, the Hokies thrashed Morgan State, turning
in their most impressive offensive performance of the season: season highs in
points (94), field goal percentage (65.4%) and three-point percentage (57.1%).
Add in 18-of-22 (81.8%) from the free throw line, just 12 turnovers, and a 35-21
rebounding edge (including an incredible 18-4 advantage in the second half), and
there was nothing to complain about.

The
most remarkable stat is, of course, the 15 straight field goals Tech hit to
start the second half. The Hokies didn’t miss until 5:07 remained, when Terrell
Bell hit the front of the rim with a three-pointer. A.D. Vassallo led the way
with 11-of-14 shooting, scoring 27 points. A.D. was two points off his career
high of 29, and he didn’t even score in the last 12:10 of the game. Tech
put up its last 35 points without any help from A.D.

This was less a game and more of a celebration. Seth Greenberg got his 300th
career win, and even the Easter Bunny showed up for that. He lurked in the stands behind the
visitors’ basket in the second half, where he was eyeballed by the Hokie Bird
for venturing onto the Bird’s turf. The mini-confrontation ended well; they
shook hands to show there were no hard feelings, and the students serenaded the
bunny with chants of “EAS-TER BUN-NY!! Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.

Tech’s two walk-ons, Paul Debnam and Tom Amalfe, even got into the act (the
act of basketball, not the act of cheering the Easter Bunny). Debnam canned a
couple of free throws with 1:36 to go, then crossed his arms over his chest in
some sort of secret sign that caused players on the Tech bench to erupt in
laughter. It was the first time Debnam had scored since the Charleston Southern
game on January 7th.

But Debnam can’t top little-used Tom Amalfe, who has played a whopping 11
minutes this season (including this Morgan State game), and who had yet to crack
the scoring column, missing three three-pointers on the year. Amalfe got wise
and went inside, throwing a wicked spin move on a hapless Morgan State defender
(after all, the court was full of them; Amalfe just picked one out of a hat) for
a layup with 58 seconds left. Cassell, as you can imagine, went nuts.

On a night of scorching shooting, when A.D. Vassallo was a man among boys and
the Easter Bunny made a rare appearance in Cassell, basketball was more fun than
it has been all year for the Hokies, in a season that has been very fun at
times. It will be fun again Monday night, when UAB comes to town. (The Easter
Bunny has yet to reveal his plans for Monday.)

Virginia Tech has always treated the NIT as fun, though. It’s not the Big
Dance. It’s more like a night out at a bar: less formal and important, but a
darn good time in its own right. The Hokies and their fans get that. More fun is
on the way, hopefully all the way to New York.

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