By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; D10
ATLANTA -- Virginia Tech had been here before. It had been under a bubble-watch microscope. It had the critical final-weekend matchups. It had been in gripping late-game situations. And for the Hokies, the story often ended in heartbreak.
Virginia Tech has not been to an NCAA tournament since 2007, and in the two seasons between then and now, it has narrowly missed receiving a bid because it faded late in the season against quality opponents. On Saturday, they put their history in the past.
With an 88-82 win over Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech went a long way toward ensuring itself of an NCAA tournament berth and secured a first-round bye as the No. 4 seed in next week's ACC tournament.
"Best feeling since I've been here," said junior guard Malcolm Delaney, who scored 32 points in a virtuoso performance. "The main thing going into today was to get the first-round bye. We knew if we secured it, we'd control our destiny for the NCAA tournament. We needed this win."
In order to overcome a nonconference schedule that ranked 338th in the RPI, Virginia Tech (23-7, 10-6) needed quality wins and had almost no margin for error to get an at-large bid. Now, with the win on Saturday, the Hokies are 3-4 against teams in the RPI top 50.
But the trip to Georgia Tech (19-11, 7-9) might have been the type that has doomed the Hokies in recent years. Their loss at Clemson in 2008 in the regular season finale probably kept them out of the bracket. And last year, they were victorious in only one of their final five regular season games, all of which were against teams in the RPI top 50.
"I'm really happy for them," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said of his players. "Genuinely. I really enjoy this team."
Virginia Tech built a 17-point lead with 9 minutes 16 seconds remaining in regulation but went scoreless from the field over the final 10:26.
Tempers flared as players jawed with each other and had to be separated before halftime while walking to the locker room through the same tunnel. Georgia Tech's Zachery Peacock and Gani Lawal were each assessed technical fouls in the second half.
"People say it's chippy, well, a lot is at stake and people want to win," Greenberg said. "You can't turn on the TV without having someone have an opinion about your team. This is a hard time of year, for coaches, for fans."
And riding that wave of emotion and undaunted by the injury-related absence of their second-leading scorer, the Hokies displayed evidence for what has made it a unique winter for a football school in the Appalachian Mountains. From one night to the next, the Hokies have found a way to win with different players.
The Hokies played without one of their key leaders, Dorenzo Hudson, who was resting a stress-related right foot injury. But his replacement, freshman Manny Atkins, played admirably in his first career start, grabbing rebounds, working hard on defense and protecting the basketball.
Atkins's performance was indicative of the type of effort Virginia Tech has gotten from a variety of players all season.
In a win at Campbell in November, it was forward J.T. Thompson making big shots. Later that month, in a win over Delaware, Atkins came off the bench and played good minutes. Freshman Ben Boggs hit two big three-pointers to help lift the Hokies over Iowa in December.
"We have great team chemistry," Greenberg said. "We have a great trust in each other. And that's why we're winning games."
In the morning walk-through before the game, Greenberg said he could tell the Hokies were ready because the players were so focused they "were looking right through me."
They would not be denied. After having to watch the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, the Hokies on Saturday looked to have punched their ticket to the ball.