At the end of practice Monday, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said he put freshman Dorian Finney-Smith at the free throw line and told him if he made both free throws during a one-and-one situation, the workout would be over. If he missed, the Hokies would have to run.
Finney-Smith, who went 1 for 8 from the charity stripe in Virginia Tech’s overtime loss to Duke last Saturday, proceeded to miss two free throws in a row. Then Greenberg had freshman Robert Brown, who missed crucial free throws during a late-game collapse in a loss at Florida State last month, step to the line, and he too couldn’t make the front end of a one-and-one.
Finally, though, on his second attempt Brown hit one to end practice, but not before “we had to run a few sprints,” sophomore Jarell Eddie said with a smile this week.
“It was kind of my way of having those guys exorcise the demons,” said Greenberg, whose team enters its final road game of the regular season at Clemson on Thursday night having lost three of its past four games in large part because of 10 missed free throws during crunch time during that time.
The reality is the Hokies were in position to be on a five-game winning streak right now, taking second-half leads on No. 22 Florida State, No. 24 Virginia and No. 4 Duke in recent weeks. Instead, though, Virginia Tech has withered down the stretch in those contests, compounding their season-long issue of pulling out close games.
The Hokies have now seen six of their past seven games, and 14 games overall this season, decided in overtime or by four points or less. But despite a 5-9 record in such games, Greenberg is starting to see the sort of growth he hoped for all year long.
“I think we’re playing good basketball and I think that we’ve played good basketball now probably for the last two and a half to three weeks,” he said. “Now obviously we’re not where we want to be. We haven’t improved in the areas as quickly in terms of ACC play as I would have liked. I thought we made very good progress early and then I thought we really leveled off and maybe even took a step backwards and now it seems like we’re starting to move forward again.”
Thursday night represents Virginia Tech’s only chance to sweep an ACC foe this year after it pulled off a 67-65 win over Clemson at Cassell Coliseum last month. But the Hokies weren’t immune to late-game struggles in that contest either, as the Tigers had a chance to tie the score at the free throw line in the waning seconds after Virginia Tech took a 14-point lead with less than six minutes remaining in the second half.
But for a change, it was the Tigers who couldn’t make a clutch free throw and Virginia Tech watched a string of seven losses in eight games finally come to an end.
“They were desperate and we weren’t as good against pressure as we normally are,” Greenberg said of that tense finish. “We usually attack pressure. We kind of had one foot in, one foot out and didn’t just go right through it like we normally would. . . . The biggest thing at the end of that game was we didn’t guard the ball well, and we’ve got to guard the ball consistently.”
The rematch should be another close one considering nine of the 11 games between Virginia Tech and Clemson since 2004 have been decided by five points or less. But the Hokies will also need to do a better job of keeping the Tigers off the glass this time even though senior forward Victor Davila is expected to miss his fifth straight game with a groin injury. Clemson finished with 22 offensive rebounds in last month’s game.
The Tigers, though, seem to have turned a corner recently with forward Milton Jennings, who missed the first meeting because of a suspension, back in the mix. The Tigers enter Thursday’s senior night with wins in four of their past five games, and suddenly have an outside shot at earning a bye in the first round of the ACC tournament despite an overall record of 15-13.
Then again, even though Virginia Tech hasn’t gotten over the hump much lately, it seems these Hokies are starting to believe their demons really could be a thing of the past heading into the final weeks of a tougher-than-expected season.
“I’ve been telling the guys this since we started losing these close games, ‘We can make a run in the ACC tournament just because we’re a contender with all the teams,’ ” Eddie said. “We’re taking all the games down to the last second, so in the ACC tournament if we do a couple things differently than previous games, maybe we can get a couple of those wins at the last second.”