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February 12, 2009

Hokies end struggles against N.C. State and finish first half of ACC with 5-3 mark

By: Jimmy Robertson

Jeff Allen’s 21 points helped Tech snap a six-game losing streak to the Wolfpack.

The attire of a head basketball coach never decides the outcome of a game. But given that the Hokies had lost to N.C. State on six straight occasions, more than one person was wondering if the curse of the red jacket existed.

Sydney Lowe, N.C. State’s coach, didn’t wear his patented red jacket this time around against Tech, and for the first time in a long time, the Hokies weren’t seeing red after a game with the Wolfpack.

Tech rallied from an 18-point, second-half deficit to knock off N.C. State 91-87 in overtime, snapping a six-game skid to the Wolfpack and finishing off the first half of the conference slate.

“It feels great,” A.D. Vassallo, a senior, said of beating N.C. State. “At least now I can say that we’ve beaten everyone since I’ve been here.

“But it’s not just that. We’re now 5-3 and in third [place, actually tied for third] in the ACC. That makes it even better.”

Tech continued its exceptional play in overtime since joining the ACC, moving to 9-1 in ACC overtime games. But more importantly, the Hokies moved to 15-7 overall and 5-3 in the ACC with the victory at the halfway point of the league schedule.
“It’s how you get to 5-3,” Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “You’ve got to try and be on the plus side because it’s hard to win on the road. When you’re 5-3 in the first half in this league, that’s pretty good because it’s hard to win a game in this league. Every team has a chance to win.

“So yes, there is a big difference [between 5-3 and 4-4]. It’s just extremely competitive every night. You can play well and lose in this league. We were getting whacked in the first half [against N.C. State] and we decided to bow our necks and stay the course and grind. We got some stops and got the ball in the right guys’ hands.”

Malcolm Delaney

If the Hokies make it to the Big Dance, they may well point to this game’s historic comeback as the difference to their season.
Tech trailed by 18 with 13:33 to go in the game and by 11 with 9:53 remaining. But the Hokies dialed up some defense and fought back in the game. They held the Wolfpack to just one field goal – and 10 total points, all by Ben McCauley – over the final 9:53 of regulation and closed regulation with a 21-10 run. Tech tied the game with 17.9 seconds left on a short, baseline jumper by Vassallo over N.C. State’s Courtney Fells.

In overtime, Vassallo gave the Hokies the lead with a lay-up and Tech never trailed. He hit two free throws with 16.4 seconds left to give Tech an 89-84 lead. N.C. State’s Javier Gonzalez cut the lead to two, 89-87, for the Wolfpack with a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go, but Vassallo hit two more free throws with 8.7 seconds left to give Tech a four-point lead, and ultimately, the win.
“I don’t know what it is about N.C. State, but they always seem to play their best against us,” said Vassallo, who scored 24 points on 10-of-17 from the floor. “But we didn’t give up and we made plays … and we just kept playing defense.”

Allen came up two rebounds short of a double-double, finishing with 21 points and eight boards. Malcolm Delaney added 18 points.

McCauley led all scorers with a game-high 25 points and 15 rebounds for the Wolfpack.

“I know this, I’m going to that guy’s graduation,” Greenberg joked of McCauley. “He might even get a present from me.”

The comeback marked the biggest for the Hokies in an ACC game. And it marks a perfect way for Tech to begin the second half of the ACC season.

“We could easily be 7-1 or 6-2, but we’ve just got to keep playing,” Vassallo said. “To be 5-3, I’ll take that any day. Four-and-4 puts you in the middle with everybody. Then every game counts even more, so we wanted to separate ourselves a little more.”
As for getting rid of the curse of that red jacket – if one believes in such superstitions – well, that’s just an added bonus for this team.

A torrid streak

Delaney, a sophomore from Baltimore, Md., figures to receive numerous all-conference votes if he continues to put up such astounding numbers. With eight games remaining in the regular season, he is leading the Hokies in scoring at 18.5 points per game and in assists at 3.7 per game. Amazingly, he is averaging 22.3 points per game in ACC games, and he ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring and sixth in assists.

Of course, those numbers nearly pale in comparison to the ones he put up in a recent 12-game stretch. Starting with the Longwood game and ending with the loss at Boston College, Delaney averaged 20.6 points per game and hit 48.1 percent of his shots from the floor, including 38.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“We give Malcolm a lot of freedom and all we ask is for him not to abuse it,” Greenberg said. “I want him to be as aggressive as possible. Early in the season, I think he was putting a lot of pressure on himself instead of just playing and attacking. He has deceptive quickness and he shoots the ball with great range and great confidence.”

Delaney’s best game came when he nearly led the Hokies to an upset of No. 12 Clemson at Cassell Coliseum. Tech fell to the Tigers 86-82 in the game – just its second home loss of the season – but Delaney did his best, scoring a career-high 37 points in a losing effort. Delaney’s output also was the most by a Tech player in an ACC game and the most scored by an ACC player in a game this season.

Thorns a different player since coming back

Tech point guard Hank Thorns missed two games with an injured knee in late December, but since he returned, he has played extremely well coming off the bench for Tech.

He returned for the Duke game and was one of the bright spots in a 69-44 Tech loss, dishing out three assists and recording two steals in 21 minutes. In his nine games since returning, he has dished out 30 assists. In contrast, he’s only turned the ball over five times in that span. He has 49 assists and 21 turnovers on the season as of Feb. 9.

But more importantly, he gives Delaney the freedom he needs to thrive in the shooting guard spot, his more natural position. That allows the Hokies a little more fluidity on offense.

“He [Thorns] gives us an energy,” Greenberg said. “He gives Malcolm the freedom to play off the ball. Hank’s been a big part of the little bit of success we’ve been having.”

In search of a fourth

The Hokies suffered an excruciating loss to BC on Jan. 31 when Rakim Sanders scored on a stick-back with four-tenths of a second remaining to give the Eagles a 67-66 victory in Chestnut Hill, Mass. This allowed the Eagles to come away with a split of the season series.

Vassallo scored all 21 of his points in the second half and Allen recorded 23 points and 11 boards for his sixth double-double of the season and the 16th of his career. Delaney finished with 18 points, as the “Big Three” combined for 62 of the 66 points. Only Dorenzo Hudson (3 points) and Hank Thorns (1 point) added points.

So far this season, the Big Three have accounted for more than 71 percent of the team’s scoring.

“We need a fourth scorer,” Greenberg said. “There’s no doubt about it. The more people we have contributing, the better off we are.”

A case in point is the win over No. 1 Wake Forest. The Hokies got 15 points from their bench, led by Cheick Diakite’s eight points.

“We’d love to have someone step up and be more consistent and be that guy,” Greenberg said. “We’d love to have a fourth and fifth scorer. I think we have some guys who can do that. We’ve got to get it consistent. The teams that have a fourth and fifth guy consistently contributing are the teams that have separated themselves.”

TECH STUNS NO. 1 WAKE By Jimmy Robertson

The Virginia Tech men’s basketball team added an impressive win to its NCAA Tournament resume when it made history by knocking off No. 1 Wake Forest 78-71 on Jan. 21 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The victory marked the Hokies’ first over a No. 1-ranked team on the road and just the third ever over a No. 1 team in the program’s history. In 2007, Tech downed No. 1 UNC 94-88 at Cassell Coliseum, and in 1983, beat Memphis 69-56 at Cassell.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Greenberg said after the game. “I thought they really bought into how we needed to play to have a chance to win.

“It’s a great win for our program. It just shows you what the ACC is all about. It’s a perfect example of how good this league is and there are no easy outs. You have to play at a really, really high level every night to have a chance, and I thought we did that.”

The Demon Deacons – the last team in the nation to lose a game – had moved to No. 1 in both The Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll two days prior.

Tech cobbled together enough free throws down the stretch to hold off Wake, hitting 10-of-19 from the stripe in the final 2:50. Wake got no closer than four points after Delaney’s free throws, hitting just one of its final seven shots from the floor.

“We came through at the end,” Vassallo said. “We knew this was a game we had to get to get our NCAA Tournament hopes up. We got it.”

For the game, Tech shot an even 50 percent from the floor against Wake, which went into the game ranked second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.2). Delaney led the way for Tech with 21 points, hitting 6-of-14 from the floor and 8-of-12 from the free-throw line.