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March 9, 2009

That's all she wrote

By: Matt Kovatch

Sophomore center Brittany Gordon really came on late in the season, nearly averaging a double-double over the last five regularseason games.

Sitting in the media room after the regular-season ending loss to Georgia Tech on Feb. 26, head women’s basketball coach Beth Dunkenberger and players Utahya Drye and Shanel Harrison had a different mood about them. Gone were the long faces and the quiet voices of the players, and absent were the stern responses and clenched teeth of Dunkenberger, all of which were normally present after one of Tech’s many defeats this season.

But not this time. Instead, Drye and Harrison made solid eye contact with reporters and gave confident answers. Though bummed out that Tech couldn’t emerge with a win, Dunkenberger seemed content with her team’s performance. They didn’t say it, but there was almost a sense of, ‘What more could we have done?’ The Hokies had battled back to force overtime, and when your regular-season record is 12-17 with just two ACC wins in 14 tries, sometimes battling is all you can ask for.

“I am proud of this team for continuing to fight,” Dunkenberger said after the 73-68 setback. “I thought it was a great effort to come back and tie it up. Although we are very disappointed that it slipped away from us in overtime, this gives us confidence to know that we can play with anybody in the ACC tournament.”

Though Tech went on to bow out of the ACC tournament with a loss to Virginia on March 5 in Greensboro, N.C., the effort against Georgia Tech, paired with a dominating performance over Wake Forest on Feb. 22, seemed like an adequate way to conclude what had been a very trying season for the Hokies.

It was only their first losing season since 1996-97, and it certainly had its share of ups and downs. Here’s a look at some of those ups and downs:

Utahya Drye carried a big load for the Hokies this season, leading the team in points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage.

Best win: This was probably the 79-55 drubbing of Wake Forest at home on Feb. 22. Not only did it snap a five-game losing streak and help the Hokies to match their ACC win total from 2008, but it also avenged one of Tech’s ugliest losses of the year, a 66-44 defeat in Winston-Salem from a week before.

The Hokies got double-figure scoring from five players for the only time this season in the win, and the 24-point advantage was the largest final margin of victory for Tech in an ACC game since beating the Deacons by 40 on Jan. 18, 2007.

The Hokies shot a season-high 65.2 percent from the field in the game – including a 6-of-12 mark from the 3-point arc – while holding Wake Forest to 33.3 percent from the field and 6-of-22 from long distance. Tech also limited Wake to just 21 rebounds, a season low for a Hokie opponent.

It was nice to see Tech get back on the right foot with a total team effort in this one, especially over a team like Wake who was at the bottom of the conference with Tech in 2008 before making a marked improvement in 2009.

Worst loss: If it wasn’t the 22-point loss to the Demon Deacons on Feb. 15, then it was probably the 57-46 setback to N.C. State in Blacksburg on Feb. 1. After holding a five-point lead at the intermission, the Hokies got outscored by 16 in the second half to lose by 11 and go into a February tailspin that produced just two wins in nine tries.

And it’s not like the second-half numbers were all that much worse than in the first half. Tech scored an equal number of points in each stanza and actually shot a better percentage in the final period. But if you were there, you saw that the Hokies left something in the locker room before coming out to finish the game. The defensive pressure was gone and the effort on the boards was missing. It was a stagnant second half, to be kind.

Toughest win: Though it shouldn’t have been, Tech’s toughest win was a 68-62 overtime defeat of USC Upstate one night after the sluggish loss to the Wolfpack. It was the non-conference finale for the Hokies, who were playing non-tournament back-to-back games for the first time since November of 1980.

Tech actually trailed at the half and needed a 14-point outburst in overtime to defeat the Spartans, who are only in their second year of Division-I competition. It would have been a disaster had Tech lost what was supposed to be an easy victory, but Drye single-handedly didn’t let that happen. The junior from Durham, N.C., exploded for career highs of 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven steals to shoulder the load for the Hokies.

Toughest loss: Was it the 57-52 loss to Duke on Jan. 16? Was it the 59-56 loss to last-place Miami on Feb. 12? Or was it the aforementioned loss to the Yellow Jackets in the regular season finale? Well, Duke was ranked fourth in the nation at the time, so it’s tough to pick nits about that one, and the Hokies gave away a 12-point lead to Miami, including a back-breaking offensive rebound and put-back with seven seconds left that proved to be the game-winner.

But the Georgia Tech loss was tough to swallow. The Hokies rode the momentum of a 15-4 run into the overtime period against one of the ACC’s best up-and-coming teams, a squad that finished fifth in the league. They overcame an 11-point deficit with less than five minutes to play in regulation, and a win would have secured them 10th place in the league, back-to-back conference wins for the first time since 2007 and a much-needed confidence boost. But sometimes when it rains, it pours, and it’s rained a lot on the Hokies lately.

Most valuable player: Drye. A natural small forward, Drye was asked to play in the post this season and she responded with All-ACC level statistics, though she wasn’t recognized for it.

It’s a crime that she didn’t at least get an honorable mention on the all-conference team, especially after finishing the regular season fourth in the league in minutes played at 34.4 minutes per game, 10th in scoring with 14.1 points per contest, 15th in rebounding at 6.5 boards per game, and 13th in both field-goal percentage (.468) and free-throw percentage (.734).

“We lost a couple of players due to injuries, so I knew I would have to step up and be a leader – I’m not a freshman or a sophomore anymore,” Drye said of her success this year. “We were kind of young somewhat; we only had one senior playing this year. I focused on trying to be more aggressive so that whenever ACC play came around, I could take what I’d been practicing and put it to use on the court.”

Most improved player: Lindsay Biggs. You could argue for Brittany Gordon here, but Biggs was actually a contributor in 2008, whereas Gordon saw almost no time at all. Biggs averaged 5.1 points per game as a sophomore in 2007-08, but has more than doubled that in her breakout junior season, ranking second on the team with an average that sat at 12.6 points per game heading into the ACC tournament. Because of her ability to stroke the 3 (she ranked third in the league in made 3-pointers as of March 4), she was the main target of many opposing defenses.

“I told Lindsay that she is everybody’s primary defensive focus – they’re going to be on her,” Dunkenberger said. “She’s got to quit trying to create her own shot and looking for it early – she’s got to let it come back to her. We likened it to Brittany Cook last year. When she gave it up and then got it back, that’s when she got her cleaner looks.”

Biggest surprise: The development of Gordon. A sophomore who played just 51 total minutes her freshman year, the 6-foot-4 center has learned on the fly in 2008-09 and ended the regular season on a tear. In the five games prior to the ACC tournament, Gordon put together two double-doubles, including four games of double-digit rebounds and three games with 12 points. She averaged 9.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game over that span, and finished the regular season ranked 14th in rebounding in ACC games.

“My team has relied on me to crash the boards and I know that’s my job,” Gordon said of her rapid development. “I also feel like [the team and I] are communicating better. I guess it’s kind of like my reward for getting a rebound – they’ll look for me more on the offensive end.”

“Going into it, I told Brittany that we needed her to play great post defense and to rebound,” Dunkenberger said. “Defensively, she gets caught behind once in a while and we’ll work on that, but when she can do those two things for us consistently, her offense will come around. She’s done a great job rebounding, and I thought that was something that we needed last year. It’s been nice to see her step up and fill that role.”

The seniors:Injuries rained down on the Tech seniors this season, as only one was in uniform when they were honored before the last home game on Feb. 26. Brittany Cook and A.J. Lemaitre never even saw action this year due to knee injuries, and Amber Hall, a post player on a team that has few, was limited to just eight games with an ailing back.

That left point guard Laura Haskins as the only senior for most of the schedule, and she responded with a typically solid effort. Entering the ACC tournament, Haskins was averaging 5.7 points, 4.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and two steals per game. Even more importantly, Haskins was named both a third-team academic All-America selection and the ACC’s Kay Yow Scholar-Athlete Award winner, an honor that recognizes the conference's top student-athlete among the league's women's basketball players.

“Laura will show up in the record books as one of the all-time leaders in steals and assists and both of those are hustle categories and good teammate categories,” Dunkenberger said. “Her leadership on the court is invaluable and we will miss her.”