And with one wave of the hand by referee Brian Kersey signaling no basket, the Hokies finally caught the break they’ve been searching for and escaped with a dramatic 52-51 victory.
Sophomore Erick Green hit what turned out to be the game winner with 4.7 seconds remaining, catapulting Virginia Tech into the ACC tournament semifinals against No. 5 Duke on Saturday afternoon. The Winchester native had shot just 1 of 12 from the floor before that bucket.
“I just stepped right into that shot, and I knew it was going in,” said Green, who went 0 for 8 and missed a potential game-winner in a loss at Boston College last month. “The last seconds got scary at the end. I didn’t know what was going on [while Kitchen’s shot was being reviewed]. I couldn’t look at the screen or anything. … I was just pacing, looking at my father [in the stands], thinking, ‘Please don’t go in; just please don’t go in.’ Then I saw [freshman Tyrone Garland] jump up and down and I knew and it just felt great.”
The ramifications of Green’s heroics will not simply be felt on this night. The stunning final seconds gave Virginia Tech another win over a quality opponent, a feat that suggests the Hokies will make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. Virginia Tech is now 3-4 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Rating Percentage Index.
Coach Seth Greenberg, after going out on a limb at times campaigning for his team’s inclusion in the tournament in past years, refused to speculate afterwards as to whether this latest Virginia Tech triumph will ultimately get it off the bubble, and over the hump in the eyes of the selection committee.
“Sunday is Sunday,” he said. “We’re gonna remain firmly in the present. There are certain things that are out of our control.”
The Hokies will now move on to face a Blue Devils team that they beat just two weekends ago and could be without conference player of the year Nolan Smith. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Upper Marlboro native injured the “second toe on his left foot,” in the second half of Duke’s quarterfinal win over Maryland and the team won’t know Smith’s status until Saturday morning.
Those thoughts, though, were secondary for the Hokies on this night. Green’s late jumper gave Virginia Tech its first lead since the score was 5-4. That’s largely because the Hokies endured a first half that Greenberg joked “set basketball back about 50 years.”
Virginia Tech made just 5 of 28 shots (17.9 percent) and finished with the fewest points (19) they’ve scored in a first half all season. Big men Jeff Allen (nine points, eight rebounds) and Victor Davila, meanwhile, played through foul trouble from the get-go, but the Hokies trailed by just eight at halftime.
It was senior Malcolm Delaney who led Virginia Tech’s second-half rally after it fell behind by as much as 11. He scored 11 points and dished out five assists after halftime, including the pass that set up Green’s game winner. He finished with a game-high 16 points.
Sophomore Manny Atkins added 14 crucial points off the bench, as the Hokies used only six players. Overall, Virginia Tech shot just 31.5 percent from the floor, the lowest percentage a winning team has finished with in the ACC tournament since 1992.
“I would have cried if we lost that game,” said Delaney, who was celebrated his 22nd birthday Friday. “That reminded me of UNC.”
The Baltimore native was referencing the last time Virginia Tech advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals in 2008, and like this season, sat squarely on the bubble. That year, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough hit a game-winning jumper with eight-tenths of a second left that ultimately relegated the Hokies to the National Invitation Tournament.
Those sorts of moments have become all too familiar for Virginia Tech in recent years. But Greenberg claimed he had a feeling during those excruciating moments of suspense after Kitchen’s shot that the outcome on Friday would be different for some reason, that “they were due.”
And after a finish that will be remembered for years in Blacksburg, Va., nobody could really argue with him.
“Usually we’re the team on the other side of this. We’re the team going to the locker room with our heads down,” Allen said. “For us to be on the positive side, it feels real good.”