Hokies Stop Just Short of New York

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With
14:26 remaining in the game last night, J.T. Thompson stole the ball at midcourt.
He slashed in front of a pass, knocked it towards the Hokie basket, and ran
after it. Virginia Tech was leading 60-48 and was torching the nets, and as
Thompson pursued the loose ball, a trip to New York was all but a done deal.

Then the bottom fell out.

Thompson grabbed the errant ball too far to the side of the basket to just
lay it in for a 14-point lead. He spun, made a move, and was summarily stuffed
by Rhode Island’s Delroy James. James grabbed the ball away from Thompson and
rocketed down the court for a layup, drawing a foul from Dorenzo Hudson in the
process.

It was a four-point swing in the space of 7 seconds. And little did we know
it was the beginning of the end.

The end actually started a minute and a half earlier, when the Hokies missed
a couple of shots after making 24 of their first 34. In all, the Hokies missed
18 of their last 20 shots after that torrid start.

I know the Hokies didn’t make 24-of-34 at any other point this season,
and I’d lay money that they didn’t have a 2-of-20 stretch at any other point in
the season, either. And last night, they put those two unique performances back
to back. It boggles the mind.

Somehow, back on March 6th, the Hokies survived going scoreless from the
field in the last 10:26 against Georgia Tech. Somehow, the Hokies survived a
2-for-14 performance from Delaney against UConn Monday night.

But they couldn’t survive this. Just two field goals in the last 16:07 of the
game, including eight straight misses from Delaney, finally did the Hokies in,
for good this time. Tech reached into the hat, and there were no more rabbits to
be found.

The
10% shooting down the stretch stands out like a sore thumb, but this game was
lost in many other ways. Rhode Island came into the contest with a +4.4 turnover
margin, 5th in the nation out of 334 teams ranked in the NCAA statistics. The
Hokies were no slouches, 21st in the nation with a +3.4, but the Rams won this
battle: Tech had 16 turnovers to URI’s 10, and Rhode Island outscored Tech 24-12
on points off turnovers.

Rhode Island outscored the Hokies 17-9 on the fast break (turnovers again)
and got 28 points from their bench, while Tech got just 8. URI’s bench picked up
the slack left by leading scorer Keith Cothran, who hit an early three-pointer
but didn’t score again until 33 minutes had passed.

At one point, the Hokies were outrebounding Rhode Island 21-10, and at
another point, Tech had 17 defensive rebounds and had surrendered just 3
offensive boards to URI. Those numbers went south as well. The rebounds ended up
just 35-29 in Tech’s favor, including nine offensive boards for Rhode Island. No
rebound was bigger than the offensive board Lamonte Ulmer grabbed with 12
seconds left, sticking in his own miss to put the game out of reach, 75-71, with
10.8 seconds left.

And the play that won’t be remembered years from now is the bucket the Hokies
gave up at the end of the first half. Against UConn, J.T. Thompson’s
buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first half was critical in Tech’s win.

Against Rhode Island, with 0.7 seconds left on the first half clock and Tech
leading 42-38, Jeff Allen sailed an inbounds pass out of bounds, turning it over
to Rhode Island in the Rams’ end of the court. As the players gathered for the
ensuing inbounds, they clustered at the free throw line, and it was so painfully
obvious what was coming next that it’s shocking the Hokies couldn’t stop it.
Jamal Wilson launched a lob to the rim, and Delroy James went up and got it,
laying it in before the buzzer.

Two points. Two points that were critical at the end of the game.

But still, despite the turnovers, rebounds, and coughing up that easy bucket,
if the Hokies just shoot a pedestrian 25% in their last 20 shots of the game
(5-for-20) … they win. This one was simply about putting the ball in the
bucket. Tech quit doing it. 70 percent is not sustainable, but merely returning
to earth, instead of falling off a cliff, would have gotten the job done.

And this is the downside of tournament basketball. One slip, and you’re done.

This is three straight seasons now that have ended with an NIT loss on the
Hokies’ home floor. This one hurts the most, I think, because the Hokies are
most responsible for the loss. Ole Miss was too big two years ago, and Baylor
was too hot last year. This year, the Hokies only need look in the mirror to see
why they lost.

This team has made great strides this year in chemistry, playing their roles,
and fighting through adversity. But for all the progress, the season ended the
same, with the sound of a popping bubble, followed by some raucous home NIT
crowds, and a painful loss just short of New York.

We’ll return over the next few days with season recaps and reflections.

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