Perhaps next season, when Virginia Tech’s young players are a year older, they’ll look back on their 68-63 win over Clemson in the opening round of the ACC tournament as the moment it all started changing. Because after two months of excruciating losses, these Hokies finally got it all right in Atlanta on Thursday night.
Virginia Tech hit clutch baskets down the stretch – none bigger than back-to-back three-pointers by junior Erick Green and senior Dorenzo Hudson – and even knocked down free throws in the waning moments to set up a quarterfinal matchup with No. 2 seed Duke at 7 p.m. Friday.
Green finished with a game-high 24 points, holding Clemson at bay when it seemed to be mounting a charge. He got some help when Hudson produced a throwback performance with 19 points, the most he has scored against an ACC opponent since the 2009-10 season.
After the game, Coach Seth Greenberg said his two veterans “willed” this team to a victory, both with how they played and how they led. And for a change, the win didn’t come in nerve-wracking fashion. For the first time since a Dec. 31 victory at Oklahoma State, the Hokies won by more than one point.
But as John Feinstein found out after the game, the win provided only temporary comfort for Greenberg, who has been worried about the fate of his brother, Brad.
What sort of effort Virginia Tech will be able to muster Friday night remains to be seen. The Hokies played Thursday with just seven scholarship players after freshman Marquis Rankin hurt his knee in a Tuesday practice, and just two had ever played in an ACC tournament game before. But Duke is dealing with its own injury issues and will be without forward Ryan Kelly (foot).
Last time these teams met back on Feb. 25 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Virginia Tech had a chance to win the game on the final possession of regulation only to lose in overtime, 70-65. But the Blue Devils were playing their second game in less than 48 hours that day. This time around it’s the Hokies that will be nursing some tired legs.
If Virginia Tech hopes to pull off the upset, Green and Hudson will have to duplicate their performances from Thursday night, and forward Cadarian Raines will need to stay out of foul trouble with such a short bench. Raines had a career-high 16 points against Duke last month, the first strong showing in what would become a string of encouraging efforts to close the regular season.
If the Hokies are looking for more incentive, a high-profile victory over Duke in prime time could push Virginia Tech over the top in terms of a berth into the NIT. As ridiculous as this may sound, the soft NCAA tournament bubble is going to have a trickle down effect on the lesser postseason tournaments, and finishing with a .500 record and an impressive win could be enough.
One thing, though, has become increasingly clear in recent weeks, and it materialized in a tangible way when Virginia Tech finally finished a game strong. Through all the close losses and disappointing performances this season, Thursday night proved once and for all the Hokies never stopped playing hard for Greenberg.
That’s something to remember whenever this group finally does turn its attention to next year.
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