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December 10, 2010

Dec. 5, 1989 - Hokies stun No.21 Alabama - Upset over Tide biggest in two years

By: Jimmy Robertson

Greg Brink (42) and Dave Herbster (45) challenged Robert Horry and Alabama, as Tech beat the Crimson Tide in 1989. Horry went on to star for several teams in the NBA.

By Chris Colston

(Reprinted from Vol. 7, No. 15 edition of the Hokie Huddler)

You’ve heard it before: “Every successful college basketball team needs a good big man.” But in Blacksburg, they might start saying everybody needs a good little man.

In the last few years, Virginia Tech fans have seen small guys such as Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, and Romell Shorter help send the Hokies home with losses. Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Michael Adams and Dana Barros, among others, have made their mark elsewhere.

Now, Tech (2-1) has a big little man of its own.

Enter 5-foot-10 (that what they’re saying) freshman Rod Wheeler, a key cog in the Hokies’ 76-75 win over 21st-ranked Alabama last Monday in Cassell Coliseum.

It was the biggest win for Tech since it upset No. 14 Georgetown on Dec. 9, 1987.

Wheeler came in for Bimbo Coles midway in the second half, but when Coles re-entered at the 7:58 mark, it was J.J. Burton, not Wheeler, who came out.

“J.J. was struggling offensively and we needed a spark,” head coach Frankie Allen said.

Down the stretch, Wheeler made two key steals, hit 2-of-2 3-point tries and made 3-of-4 free throws, finishing with nine points.

“Rod might have been the most poised player on the floor,” Allen said. “He played like a senior. He was a catalyst, a spark, a Godsend. Our fans would have come out of the stands and lynched me if I had taken him out.”

Alabama (4-1), No. 26 in USA Today’s computer rankings (the Hokies were No. 113), was only a one-point favorite even though the Tide – with a roster full of big, athletic players – was coming off an upset of traditional power North Carolina.

Apparently, the Las Vegas odds makers were well aware of Tech’s home court advantage, and the game was a struggle all the way.

A Melvin Cheatum lay-up gave the Tide a 62-59 lead with 3:40 left, but Coles answered. That’s when Wheeler went into his act. First, he stole the inbounds pass and fed fellow freshman Dirk Williams for a lay-up. Then, after Alabama’s Robert Horry scored, he hit a trey; then he made another steal and was fouled. He sank both ends of the one-and-one to give Tech a 68-64 lead with 2:22 left.

After Alabama’s Gary Waites and Coles traded buckets, Wheeler picked up a loose ball and drove to the basket. His lay-up went awry, but Williams was there to slam it home for a 72-66 lead and send Cassell Coliseum into delirium with 1:11 left.

“I could see a jam coming all the way from halfcourt,” Williams said.

But it wasn’t over yet. Keith Askins tipped in an errant shot, and then Tech’s Williams was called for an illegal screen. Waites made one free throw, but Rivers rebounded and pitched out to Wheeler, who was fouled in the backcourt. His free throw with 32 seconds left made it 73-69 Tech, and John Rivers rebounded his miss, was fouled and made one for a 74-69 lead with 31 seconds left.

Horry missed a 3-point try, but stole Coles’ cross-court pass. He lost the ball driving to the hoop, but the ball bounced off Tech center David Herbster and right back to Horry, who slammed it home and was fouled by Wheeler. Horry made the free throw, and Tech’s lead was just two with 10 seconds left.

That was the call for Coles to earn his reputation. He took the inbounds pass, was fouled and made both ends of the one-and-one to finally seal the victory. He finished with 34 points – no other Tech player scored in double figures.

After being out-rebounded 23-16 in the first half, Tech fought back to win the battle of the boards 43-42. Tech out-rebounded Alabama 14-5 on the offensive boards and 27-19 in the final 20 minutes.

“We had fresh legs at the end,” Allen said.

Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson was terse with reporters after the game. “The difference in the game was their offensive rebounding,” he said. “That’s something we take great pride in ourselves, but we stood around and watched them. They out-worked us.

“The keys to the game were their offensive rebounding and the play of Coles. I don’t know nothing about any of that other (stuff).”

Although Allen was pleased with the win, he pleaded Hokie fans to be cautious. “One game does not a season make,” he said. “People wrote us off after the Marshall game, and that was wrong. This is a good win for us, but we still have a lot of work to do.”