Virginia Tech Holds Off Virginia, 78-75

Virginia Tech's Victor Davila, right, and Virginia's Assane Sene watch the ball bound away during the second half at Cassell Coliseum. A.D. Vassallo's late jumper sealed the Hokies' win.
Virginia Tech's Victor Davila, right, and Virginia's Assane Sene watch the ball bound away during the second half at Cassell Coliseum. A.D. Vassallo's late jumper sealed the Hokies' win. (By Matt Gentry -- Associated Press)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

BLACKSBURG, Va., Jan. 10 -- Even when Virginia Tech held a double-digit lead late in the second half Saturday at Cassell Coliseum, the Hokies' 78-75 win over Virginia seemed determined to remain in doubt until the final buzzer. Last season, both games in the rivalry extended into overtime. In the final minute Saturday, it appeared that could be the case again.

Virginia guard Mustapha Farrakhan single-handedly kept the Cavaliers in the game with 15 points in the final five minutes to turn a 15-point deficit into a one-possession game. All Coach Dave Leitao's Cavaliers needed was one more stop. His team knew as much, which is why Virginia's bench deflated when Hokies senior swingman A.D. Vassallo buried a jumper with 19 seconds remaining to clinch a home victory Virginia Tech badly needed and send the Cavaliers back to Charlottesville with another close loss.

"You can't afford to lose a home game," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said. "You're going to play a good team every night, so someone's going to lose. A good team's going to lose."

Vassallo called Saturday's game a "must win," a term seldom used for January college basketball. Vassallo felt a hint of personal redemption after scoring just seven points in a 25-point loss to Duke last weekend and spending the final six minutes on the bench.

So with Virginia Tech (10-5, 1-1 ACC) gripping just a two-point lead and 25 seconds remaining, Greenberg called a timeout. There were 11 seconds on the shot clock, and Greenberg drew a play for Vassallo to receive the ball on the right side, where he would either drive to the baseline or take a step-back jumper -- one he mastered in practice with assistant coach Ryan Odom.

"I did that one time for him," Vassallo said, explaining how he sank two of his game-high 29 points. It gave Virginia Tech a four-point lead that was too much for the Cavaliers (7-6, 1-1) to overcome.

"It's a big-time shot," Leitao said. "Ultimately, it carried them over the top. But I look at it more from the standpoint that he came out of the gates at the beginning of the game and we had allowed him to feel comfortable."

Vassallo and guard Malcolm Delaney (24 points) combined for 53 of the Hokies' 78 points on 19-of-31 shooting. Vassallo could hardly believe he finished with 29 points but made just one three-pointer. They were the two players Leitao knew the Cavaliers needed to stop, and Virginia failed.

The third part of the trio, forward Jeff Allen, scored three points and did not hit a field goal. Greenberg was not concerned afterward, but Vassallo said the Hokies cannot continue winning without production from Allen.

The Hokies knew they needed to stop Virginia guard Sylven Landesberg, who finished with 20 points despite the intense pressure. Greenberg credited Landesberg after the game and said the freshman will score his 20 points regardless. What the Hokies did not expect was the second-half barrage from Farrakhan, who hit four three-pointers and three free throws for 15 of his career-high 17 points in the game's final minutes.

Farrakhan is averaging 10.4 points in his past five games after sitting the entire Dec. 20 loss to Auburn.

"What has ailed him before is he had not been able to play through some errors, and mentally he's playing through those errors a little bit better," Leitao said.

Considering the Cavaliers' youth, rebounding from a 15-point deficit on the road in a rivalry game and unearthing a potential scoring threat in Farrakhan could be taken as positives. However, Leitao quickly dismissed any reason for optimism. Four of Virginia's six losses have been by four points or less, including nonconference games against power-conference opponents such as Syracuse and Auburn.

"It's critically important with a young team that they understand that you have to do certain things from an overall standpoint in order to win," Leitao said.

The schedule becomes more difficult for the Cavaliers, who host No. 3 North Carolina on Thursday. The Hokies will play their final nonconference game Wednesday against Richmond before returning to the ACC against Boston College next Saturday. There will be less pressure, though, after securing Vassallo's self-termed "must win."

"We had to win. There was no other choice," Vassallo said. "We had to defend Cassell for one, and we had to get on board with our first [ACC] win, get up to .500 and build up from that point on."

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