NYC Sendoff Goes Awry

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As the winning point guard dribbled the last few seconds off the clock, a
cheer arose in Cassell Coliseum. When the final horn sounded, chants of
“LET’S GO HOKIES!” rang out to the rafters, and when Virginia Tech
exited the floor, it was to thunderous applause and cheers. It was the end we
envisioned to the game, with one major change to the script: The Hokies lost,
and their season is over.

This was to be a coronation, a rousing send-off for a gritty, resilient team
that had earned a trip to New York, but Ole Miss spoiled the party. Virginia
Tech had hammered outmanned Morgan State and UAB in the first two rounds in
raucous Cassell Coliseum, but the Rebels came in with the winning road formula.
Rebounding and defense are your friends far away from home, and Ole Miss put
them to good use in winning rather easily and punching their own ticket to
Madison Square Garden.

I waited until the morning after to write this column, because last night, I
was not in a forgiving mood. This game looked too much like an NC State game, I
thought, a matchup in which the game plan screamed “Run!” but instead,
the Hokies let the other team bog them down into the type of half-court slugfest
that is rarely to Tech’s advantage.

We
knew coming in that Ole Miss was a good rebounding team, with an unending stream
of 6-8, 250 types. We knew they leaned hard on their starters, and we knew they
had played an overtime game late into the night Monday. Run ’em up and down the
floor, right? Wear ’em out.

But much like those maddening NC State games, where a slowdown favors the
other guys, Tech got dragged into a halfcourt brawl. It started off well
enough, with the Hokies racing to a 12-3 lead in the first couple minutes, but
Ole Miss threw a zone at the Hokies … and a rec-league over-40 game where fast
breaks aren’t allowed suddenly broke out.

Then the beating started. Ole Miss crushed the Hokies on the boards, 46-23
for the game and an incredible 28-13 in the first half alone. Tech looked
lethargic and confused on offense, a state they hadn’t lapsed into in quite some
time, and as the game wore on, the inevitable happened. The Hokies hung on as
long as they could, but you knew the entire time that’s exactly what they were
doing: just hanging on.

Midway through the second half, the Rebels turned a 46-all tie into a 60-49
advantage, and that was it for the Hokies. You could see the light bulb go on
for the Rebels in that stretch, and their toughness and competitiveness, out in
full force the whole game, took on a new swagger. Their dribbling was stronger,
their cuts sharper, their confidence soaring. They knew they were going to win,
and they rode it home.

This was a matchup issue for the Hokies, pure and simple, but two other
things happened to doom Tech, as well. The Rebels came into this contest
shooting 30.5% from three-point range on the road, including a miserable
14-of-62 (22.6%) in their last three roadies, but — wouldn’t you know it —
they dropped 8-of-19 against the Hokies, good for 42%. I thought one of the most
critical sequences of the game was back-to-back three pointers by Chris Warren
and David Huertas that reduced Tech’s 12-3 lead to 12-9 in the span of 22
seconds. That got the Rebs off to a good start from the field and gave them
confidence.

The
other thing that happened to Tech was that the bottom dropped out of the Hokies’
hot shooting. Over the last six games, the Hokies were 43-of-101 (42.6%) from
three-point range, and in their last three home games, they had blistered the
nets for 26-of-57 (45.6%) from beyond the arc.

That ended abruptly last night. Only Malcolm Delaney (3-of-7) kept up the
pace from the outside. The rest of the team was 6-of-21 (28.6%) from three-point
range, and the Hokies needed more than that.

As I said, I was in a less charitable mood last night, because I thought the
Hokies should have forced tempo, but I admit that forcing tempo when you’re
getting out rebounded 2-to-1 is a difficult task, at best. It’s over. There
won’t be a trip to NYC for VT, and no amount of questioning and second-guessing
is going to change that.

You lose a lot of games in the course of a basketball season, but tournament
basketball is different, because the losses are so final. Lose, and you’re done.
You’re swimming along just fine, then you have a bad outing, and you’re staring
at a 7-month offseason. Yikes. So it is here, and it takes a night to get used
to the thought.

In the end, the NIT experience had a lot of value. Taking these young guys to
the NCAA would have been very valuable exposure to the big stage, but once the
Hokies were relegated to the Small Dance, something very special still unfolded.
No one pays much attention to the NIT, except for the participating teams and
their fans, and for VT, that’s where the value was.

Anyone
who attended any of the three NIT games Tech hosted saw something positive take
place, something critical in the building of a program. Cassell was jammed to
the corners for all three games (in other places, they say “jammed to the
rafters,” but here in Blacksburg, we measure a crowd by whether or not it
fills the corners), and the atmosphere had an intense, raw edge you don’t see in
the regular season. When you drop ticket prices to half what they are in the
regular season, make it general admission instead of reserved seating, eliminate
the student lottery and wind up with twice as many students in the stands, and
play lose-and-you’re-done tournament basketball, a great atmosphere ensues.

The result? The team and its fans connected in a new way. Many of the NIT
attendees were people who had never seen a Tech game in person before, and even
if you had, this was special, and a lot of fun. Had the Hokies played in the
NCAAs far from home, in a neutral venue with just a handful of VT fans making
the trip, that connection wouldn’t have occurred. From that standpoint, these
NIT games were a valuable experience and an important stepping stone.

This connection was nowhere more evident than in that final cheer as VT
exited the coliseum. As this game got under one minute, and Seth Greenberg
clearly capitulated by pulling senior Deron Washington from the floor, the large
majority of Tech fans remained until the bitter end. Maybe ten percent headed
for the exits, but the rest stayed, broke out in an impromptu chant, and
applauded the Hokies and their season as the team left the floor.

It was suddenly over, and it wasn’t the end we wanted, but you can’t deny
that something special happened here, something meaningful. I’m in postseason
shock this morning, coming to grips with the fact that the season is done, but I
can see the horizon from here … and what’s out there is bright. Things are
just getting underway.

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