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April 7, 2009

Curtain falls on Hokies' 2008-09 season with NIT loss to Baylor

By: Jimmy Robertson

Despite the early tip-off, Tech's fans showed up in full force. But Tech couldn't extend its season, falling to the Bears 84-66 in the second round of the NIT.

The Virginia Tech Hokies’ 2009 National Invitation Tournament run came to an abrupt end courtesy of the Baylor Bears.
And so, too, did the Hokies’ 2008-09 season.

A horrible shooting performance turned out to be Tech’s undoing, as the Hokies fell 84-66 to the Bears in a second-round NIT game played March 21 at Cassell Coliseum. With the loss, Tech closed out its season with a 19-15 record. The Hokies lost for just the second time in an NIT game played at Cassell Coliseum (now 11-2 all time).

The Bears never trailed, jumping out to a 22-5 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game in part because the Hokies made just one of their first 17 attempts from the floor against the Bears’ 2-3 zone.

In the second half, Baylor led by as many as 28. An 18-3 run, capped by two A.D. Vassallo free throws, got the Hokies to within 65-52, and after a dunk by Baylor’s Kevin Rogers made the score 67-52, Tech’s Malcolm Delaney canned a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 12 with 4:57 remaining.

But Curtis Jerrells hit two free throws and Henry Dugat drained a 3-pointer from the corner on back-to-back Baylor possessions to push the lead to 17, and the Bears weren’t threatened again.

“Our inability to make a shot early really affected our ability to defend,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “We just stopped checking people. The basket got big for them and they just physically overpowered us up front. We have to get stops to be successful, so that’s disappointing.”

Rogers and Jerrells paced six Baylor players in double figures with 16 points each. The two seniors combined to hit 11-of-17 from the floor. The Bears shot 61.7 percent for the game, the best against the Hokies this season. They also hit 10-of-21 from beyond the 3-point arc.

A.D. Vassallo

Delaney led the Hokies with 14 points and 10 assists – tying his career high – and Vassallo finished with 12. But the two of them combined to go 8-for-34 from the floor.

Tech shot just 32.4 percent – its second-worst performance of the season.

The bitter loss marked the end of the Hokies’ third consecutive postseason run – a run accomplished only one other time in Tech history (the Hokies made the postseason five straight years from 1982-86). Despite that accomplishment, Tech’s current crop of players felt a sense of emptiness following the game.

“We did OK, but we didn’t play how I think we could play,” Delaney said. “We’ve got to go at it hard in the offseason and try to eliminate those bumps in the road and try to keep everyone healthy going into the season. Then we need to eliminate all the crazy stuff that gets people taken out of their games.

“Hopefully, we can stay together as a team the whole season and get some confidence at the beginning of the year. Hopefully, those losses in the big tournaments we play in early in the year, we can turn into wins and that will lead to some wins in the second half of the season.”

“We had a good year, not a great year,” Greenberg said. “We’ve got to get better. Coaches and players – everyone.”
As the Hokies head into the offseason, here are a few of the things that Greenberg may or will be addressing:

  • Replacing Vassallo – The Tech forward closed out his career as the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer and was the “big” part of the “Big Three” (he, Delaney and Jeff Allen). Vassallo averaged 19.1 points and nearly 37 minutes per game.

    Replacing Vassallo’s production probably goes to the heart of an even bigger issue. The Hokies need a little more balanced scoring across the board. In addition to Vassallo, Delaney and Allen both averaged in double figures in scoring. But of the remainder of the roster, only J.T. Thompson averaged more than five points per game.

    “Hopefully, next year some guys will step up, even the freshmen coming in,” Thompson said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to put a little in to fill his [Vassallo’s] spot. Those are some big shoes to fill.

    “What we’re hoping is that it won’t be the ‘Big Three.’ Hopefully, it’ll be everyone out there giving a little. This year, early in the year, when one of them wasn’t doing too well, then the whole team wasn’t. So hopefully, everyone can give us something instead of it being just the Big Three.”
  • What to do with Delaney – Greenberg may be inclined to move Delaney to the shooting guard spot on a permanent basis to take advantage of his scoring abilities. To do that, Hank Thorns needs to progress with his game as a point guard. Thorns played much better the latter half of the season as a ball handler and passer, dishing out 52 assists compared to 21 turnovers in the final 19 games. But he needs to work on his shooting – he shot less than 30 percent from the floor this season.

    As for Delaney, he got most of the attention from the opposing team’s defense, and that, combined with his point guard responsibilities, might have been too much for him to handle down the stretch. In the final eight games of the season, he shot just 28 percent from the floor.

    Of course, on the flip side, he averaged nearly four assists per game the final four games and went into double figures twice. That makes the decision a hard one for Greenberg.
  • Better starts – A lot of emphasis gets placed on what happens at the end of games and justifiably so, but Tech found itself victimized by some rather poor starts the final six weeks of the season. The Hokies lost nine games starting from Jan. 31 to the end of the season, and in five of those, they got off to poor starts, trailing by at least seven points 15 minutes into the game. Here’s a sampling:

    Date Opponent Trailing by
    Jan. 31 at BC 18-11
    Feb. 21 FSU 25-11
    Feb. 28 Duke 20-5
    March 8 at FSU 24-10
    March 21 Baylor 22-5

    With the exception of the Baylor game, the Hokies did cut these deficits to a few points or took the lead. But in the end, the deficits were too much to overcome.

    In fairness, Tech got off to a poor start against N.C. State and rallied to win. The Hokies also trailed Clemson early and rallied to record a big win at Littlejohn Coliseum. But rallies like these on a night-in and night-out basis in the ACC are too much to ask, especially for a young team.

  • Improving defense – This may be the big one for Greenberg. The Hokies allowed opponents to shoot just 42.1 percent this season, a respectable number. But that percentage probably needs to be below 40 for more success, and more importantly, the team needs to find a way to get stops at critical points in a game.

    The Hokies did not have a defensive stopper this season – like Deron Washington, who could guard any position on the floor. If someone emerges next season, then that would help this group tremendously.

    Barring any roster attrition, the Hokies return three starters and nine other regulars who saw minutes this past season. They do have a nice nucleus returning.

    But as most know, that doesn’t equate to wins. There is improving to do.

    As Greenberg said, “We’ve got to get better.”

Vassallo’s swan song

Vassallo, the senior from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, did not go out the way in which he wanted – with an NIT championship. He suffered a rough game in the Hokies’ loss to Baylor, scoring just 12 points and hitting only 4-of-17 from the floor, including 2-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“I’ll be honest with you, I thought we had great looks,” Vassallo said. “I shot over the top of their guards and I was able to shoot clean shots. The ball just was not going in.

“I’m happy the guys worked as hard as they could [against Baylor]. I couldn’t ask for any more. They pressed and were running around all over the place trying to make something happen, trying to win the game. Regardless of whether they did it for me or not, I’m appreciative of that.”

Vassallo closed out his career with 1,822 points – a figure that ranks fifth on Tech’s all-time scoring list behind Bimbo Coles, Dell Curry, Dale Solomon and Perry Young. His career-high 33-point outburst against Duquesne in the first round enabled him to pass Allan Bristow into fifth place.

Vassallo also leaves as Tech’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. He departs with 267 3-pointers. He snapped the previous record when he drained a 3-pointer with 19:40 remaining in the Hokies’ first-round game against Miami in the ACC tournament. Former guard Wally Lancaster held the previous record of 258, which he set during his three years in Blacksburg (1986-89).

“I’ve got to move on now,” Vassallo said. “I’ve got other things to look forward to now. I’ve got to finish school. That’s important to me. I’ve got to finish and try to graduate and get my diploma. I’ve got workouts. But it hurts. I really wanted to leave Tech winning a championship and making my mark. But that couldn’t happen.”

Vassallo also departs with six career double-doubles, including three this season. Two of those came in the Hokies’ final three games when he scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds – despite being in foul trouble for a chunk of the game – in the Hokies’ near upset of North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament and his 33-point, 12-rebound performance against Duquesne in the NIT.

“I know in the clutch, if he’s got an open shot, he’s going to knock it down,” Delaney said of Vassallo. “He’s one of the toughest players to defend in the ACC. He’s a leader on the court. The young guys coming in next year, they could have learned some stuff from him.”

Tech-Duquesne – a game for the ages

Dorenzo Hudson

In the first round of the NIT, Tech played Duquesne at Cassell Coliseum in a battle of old Atlantic 10 Conference foes, and the game turned out to be an epic.

The Hokies outlasted the Dukes 116-108 in double overtime, getting a career-high 33 points from Vassallo and staving off a great performance from Dukes’ guard Aaron Jackson.

“All I can say is, ‘Wow!’” Greenberg said. “I’ve been doing this 32 years and I’ve never played in a game like that.”

The Hokies led by as many as 13 with seven minutes to go in regulation, but the Dukes used a 17-4 run to tie the game and actually took a 78-76 lead after Melquan Bolding hit the first of two free throws with 28.6 seconds remaining in regulation. But Vassallo hit a floater in the lane with 13.1 seconds to go to tie the game at 78.

On the final possession of regulation, Duquesne’s Eric Evans drove into the lane. But his contested lay-up came up well short, sending the game into overtime.

The Hokies appeared to have the game under control in the first overtime, leading by six with under a minute to go. But the Dukes rallied again and tied the game at 94 on Jackson’s lay-up with less than two seconds to go.

In the second overtime, Vassallo scored 10 points and the Hokies made all 10 of their free-throw attempts in the final 1:18 to put the game away.

Jackson scored a career-high 46 points – the most ever by a Tech opponent at Cassell and the second-most ever against a Tech team. He hit 15-of-25 from the floor, including 8-of-13 from beyond the 3-point arc. He also hit 8-of-9 from the free-throw line and dished out four assists.

His performance was the fourth-best single-game performance in Duquesne history.

“I told him it was incredible the way he played,” said Greenberg, who stopped Jackson after he fouled out with 23 seconds left in the second overtime and shook his hand. “He’s a fierce competitor. His toughness and competitive spirit impressed me, but it didn’t surprise me. I watched their last four games and that guy doesn’t quit. He is that good.”

The 116 points were tied for the ninth most in Tech history and the most since the Hokies put up 141 points against Southern Miss in a 141-133 double-overtime win on Feb. 6, 1988.

Delaney knocks off some records

By hitting 14-of-15 from the free-throw line in the Hokies’ first-round win over Miami in the ACC tournament, Malcolm Delaney set the Tech single-season record for free throws made. The 14 made free throws gave him 205 on the season at that point, snapping the previous mark of 200 set by Bimbo Coles during the 1987-88 campaign. Delaney finished the season with 225 made free throws.

He now has made 310 free throws and could break Coles’ career record of 593 free throws by the time he departs from Tech. His current 84.5 career free-throw percentage would also be an all-time mark at Tech if he maintains it.

The sophomore from Baltimore also set the Tech tournament record for assists in a game. He dished out eight assists against Miami, tying his career high and breaking the Tech tournament record of six held by former guard Zabian Dowdell, who dished out six in a win over Wake Forest in the 2007 quarterfinals.

He broke that record in Tech’s next game. Against North Carolina in the quarterfinals, Delaney dished out a career-high 10 assists. He dished out another 10 assists in the Hokies’ loss to Baylor.

In the final four games of the season, Delaney dished out 37 assists as compared to just 11 turnovers.

Thompson strong down the stretch

J.T. Thompson played well down the stretch and should be a big factor for the Hokies heading into next season.

J.T. Thompson played down the stretch the way that many anticipated him playing the entire season. He scored a career-high 21 points in Tech’s win over Duquesne, hitting 9-of-12 from the floor, and he averaged 10.9 points per game the final seven games of the season. He shot 66 percent from the floor in that span.

He was the surprise performance for the Hokies in the ACC tournament when he played two tremendous games off the bench. Against Miami, the sophomore from Monroe, N.C., scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 23 minutes. He connected on all five of his shot attempts.

“I think we’re better when I give a little more,” Thompson said. “Today [after the Miami game], I was able to score and grab some rebounds. It doesn’t matter if I start or come off the bench, as long as I’m giving the team something.”

“He was the energizer bunny,” Greenberg said. “He gave us great toughness today. He was flying around.

“The three keys to the game were we did a very good job on [Jack] McClinton, we knew they were going to open in a zone and we were poised against the zone early on, and J.T. gave us an energy off the bench.”

Against North Carolina, he scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds in 24 minutes. He connected on 4-of-6 from the floor.

Delaney, Vassallo earn All-ACC honors
Malcolm Delaney

Vassallo and Delaney received recognition for their tremendous seasons by earning a spot on the All-ACC team as selected by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association. Both made the third team. Vassallo earned second-team honors in 2007, while Delaney made the squad for the first time. Here’s a look at all the teams:

All-ACC Teams
(first-team vote = 3 points; second-team vote = 2 points; third-team vote = 1 point)

First Team (Points)
Tyler Hansbrough, Sr., North Carolina* (228)
Toney Douglas, Sr., Florida State (226)
Ty Lawson, Jr., North Carolina (224)
Gerald Henderson, Jr., Duke (210)
Jack McClinton, Sr., Miami (188)
*unanimous 1st team

Second Team (Points)
Jeff Teague, Soph., Wake Forest (185)
Trevor Booker, Jr., Clemson (156)
Tyrese Rice, Sr., Boston College (151)
Kyle Singler, Soph., Duke (128)
Greivis Vasquez, Jr., Maryland (116)

Third Team (Points)
James Johnson, Soph., Wake Forest (100)
Malcolm Delaney, Soph., Virginia Tech (83)
A.D. Vassallo, Sr., Virginia Tech (81)
Danny Green, Sr., North Carolina (48)
Gani Lawal, Soph., Georgia Tech (46)

Honorable Mention (15 or more points)
Wayne Ellington, Jr., North Carolina (41)
K.C. Rivers, Sr., Clemson (33)
Sylven Landesberg, Fr., Virginia (15)

All-Freshman Team
*Sylven Landesberg, Virginia (76)
*Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest (76)
Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech (70)
Solomon Alabi, Florida State (59)
Ed Davis, North Carolina (55)

Honorable Mention
Chris Singleton, Florida State (21)

All-Defensive Team
Trevor Booker, Clemson (67)
Toney Douglas, Florida State (67)
Solomon Alabi, Florida State (53)
Danny Green, North Carolina (28)
L.D. Williams, Wake Forest (26)

Honorable Mention
Ty Lawson, North Carolina (20)
Gani Lawal, Georgia Tech (17)
Courtney Fells, North Carolina State (16)
Gerald Henderson, Duke (15)

Player of the year Ty Lawson, North Carolina (31)
(Receiving 5 or more votes) – Toney Douglas, Florida State (27); Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (13)

Coach of the year Leonard Hamilton, Florida State (55)
(Receiving votes) – Al Skinner, Boston College (10); Dino Gaudio, Wake Forest (6); Oliver Purnell, Clemson (2); Roy Williams, North Carolina (2); Gary Williams, Maryland (1)

Defensive player of the year Toney Douglas, Florida State (53)
(Receiving 5 or more votes) – Trevor Booker, Clemson (15)

Rookie of the year Sylven Landesberg, Virginia (55)
(Receiving 5 or more votes) – Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest (20)