Virginia Tech has found a variety of ways to lose basketball games since entering ACC play last month, but no defeat will likely compare to what took place Thursday night, when the Hokies blew a nine-point lead in the final 89 seconds during a heartbreaking 48-47 loss at No. 20 Florida State.
What made it particularly demoralizing had nothing to do with the wide-open game-winning three-pointer Seminoles guard Michael Snaer made with 2.6 seconds to go or the fact the Hokies tied their season low for points. It was that, for a change, Virginia Tech was on the verge of a breakthrough upset on the road, overcoming a wave of injuries that left Coach Seth Greenberg with just five available scholarship players by the time Snaer was dribbling down the court for the deciding basket.
But on a night when the Hokies put on one of their more encouraging performances this season, taking a 15-point lead after starting the second half on a 17-0 run, they also suffered through a surreal late-game meltdown that caused Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton to say, “The basketball gods just smiled on us in this one.”
“We did what we wanted to do,” a dejected Greenberg told host Bill Roth on Virginia Tech’s radio broadcast Thursday night after the Hokies dropped to 3-9 since Jan. 1. “We just didn’t make free throws when we had to.”
It was those miscues from the charity stripe, more than Virginia Tech being held to just one field goal over the final 8:20 of the game, that proved to be the biggest factor in the Hokies’ eighth straight defeat in Tallahassee. Virginia Tech went 3 of 10 from the free throw line over the final 2:11 of the game.
It started when leading scorer Erick Green, an 83.1 percent free throw shooter who played an otherwise strong game and finished with a game-high 18 points, missed the front end of a one-and-one on two straight possessions. Senior Dorenzo Hudson, who entered the game ranked third in the ACC in free throw shooting at 84.4 percent, then missed two free throws.
Soon thereafter, sophomore Jarell Eddie, an 83.8 percent shooter from the line, made just one of two free throws. Six seconds later, Florida State’s Ian Miller hit a three-pointer – from basically the same spot as Derwin Kitchen’s waived-off game-winner in Virginia Tech’s dramatic ACC tournament victory over Florida State last year — to leave the Seminoles down 47-45 with 45 seconds left.
Freshman Dorian Finney-Smith missed a three-pointer on the Hokies’ ensuing possession, but Eddie came up with a clutch offensive rebound and was fouled. Except he never made it to the line, lying on the ground and eventually leaving the game with cramps in his calf.
By rule, Hamilton got to select what Virginia Tech player took Eddie’s place at the free throw line and he picked freshman Robert Brown. The 64.7 percent free throw shooter proceeded to miss both of his ensuing shots, setting the stage for Snaer’s heroics.
“In the end it had nothing to do with made field goals,” Greenberg told reporters during his postgame news conference. “It’s real simple, you step up and make free throws and the game is over. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.”
Ten minutes before Eddie went down, sophomore Cadarian Raines left the game with cramps in his left hamstring, an injury that left Greenberg with just one player – Finney-Smith – that was taller than 6-8 to combat Florida State’s experienced front court. At one point late in the second half, freshman C.J. Barksdale (sprained ankle) channeled his inner Willis Reed, changing into his uniform after sitting on the bench with a walking boot for much of the game. The Hokies were also without senior forward Victor Davila, who was a surprise scratch after suffering a groin injury this week in practice.
The epic collapse to close the contest blurs what had been a valiant effort by Virginia Tech. With a limited bench, Greenberg turned to a 2-3 zone that helped contain Florida State’s four big men to a combined 16 points and 17 rebounds. The Hokies surged ahead to begin the second half, hitting six of their first seven shots and taking a 40-25 lead with 14:09 to go.
But Virginia Tech went conservative down the stretch, hoping to milk the clock and preserve its tired legs. Greenberg said in his postgame radio interview that he wanted “to shorten the game.” The strategy backfired, though, as the Hokies mustered just two field goals and three free throws after taking that 15-point lead.
After the fact, Greenberg tried his best to take comfort in the moral victories in another narrow loss. But there was no disguising the despondent look on the coach’s face as television cameras replayed his reaction when the buzzer sounded on the most crushing Hokies’ defeat yet.
“I’m really proud of our kids. You talk about courage, you talk about spirit, you talk about belief, and they possessed all those traits,” Greenberg said on the radio. “We talked before the game about building one brick at a time and I think we built some bricks today. But at the end, you’ve got to make some free throws to put the team away.”