BLACKSBURG, Va. — For the past month, Virginia Tech has learned just how difficult winning in the ACC can be. So it only made sense that after playing its best game in weeks Saturday, the Hokies found themselves hanging on for dear life in the waning moments against Clemson.
But after watching a 14-point lead dwindle to two over the final six minutes of the second half, Virginia Tech finally caught the breaks it had seemingly been in search for since the calendar turned to 2012.
First, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels missed two free throws that could have tied the score with 3.6 seconds left on the clock. Tigers guard Tanner Smith then collected the rebound on the second miss, but his baseline jumper grazed off the rim as the buzzer sounded to give the Hokies a sorely needed 67-65 victory over the Tigers.
Clemson closed the game on a 15-3 run, and Virginia Tech was held without a field goal over the final 5 minutes 57 seconds. None of that mattered, though, not after the Hokies entered Saturday with losses in seven of their past eight games.
“We have had the ‘there we go again’ moments, but today we came together as a group and said, ‘We aren’t gonna let that happen this game,’ ” Jarell Eddie, who scored a game-high 15 points, said of the tense final moments. “It was definitely a big relief just to get the win.”
The victory helped Virginia Tech (13-10, 2-6) avoid some dubious marks. A loss would have given the Hokies their worst start in conference play and the most home losses in a row (five) since the 2001-02 season. Perhaps more importantly, Virginia Tech stayed out of the ACC cellar after Georgia Tech beat Boston College earlier in the day.
Though Saturday’s game came down to a final shot, it was hard to overstate the importance the Hokies’ first field goal of the game had on the outcome. That’s because highly touted freshman Dorian Finney-Smith ended a streak of 25 consecutive missed shots with a driving layup for Virginia Tech’s first points of the afternoon.
On the sideline, Coach Seth Greenberg was ecstatic. The night before, he spent 45 minutes working one-on-one with Finney-Smith on his shooting form, while the coach’s dog, Jake, “was rebounding,” Greenberg joked Saturday.
So it was no small feat when the 6-foot-8 forward shot better than 50 percent for the first time since a win over North Florida on Dec. 19. He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, including a confident-looking three-pointer from the corner that turned out to be Virginia Tech’s final field goal of the game.
“It felt like a big weight just got off my shoulder,” Finney-Smith said of ending his ignominious slump, which spanned six games. “I screamed a little bit, too, after it went in.”
The basket also seemed to ignite his teammates and a crowd of 9,426, because from there the Hokies opened up a 23-7 lead. Freshman point guard Marquis Rankin, who tied his career high with eight points, capped off the surge when he came out of nowhere for a one-handed follow of a Finney-Smith miss that resulted in a three-point play.
The Tigers (11-11, 3-5) responded with a 6-0 run, but it was clear Virginia Tech’s fortunes had finally turned for the better. Eddie soon hit two three-pointers, one that grazed the top of the backboard and fell in and another as he was fouled by Clemson’s Bryan Narcisse. Virginia Tech entered halftime with a 42-28 lead, tied for the most points it has scored in the first half this season. That the Hokies almost gave it all away was a moot point after a month they hope is finally behind them.
“It almost turned into a typical Clemson-Virginia Tech game: Whoever led the whole game was definitely gonna lose,” Greenberg said as he sat down for his postgame news conference. “Fortunately for us, we survived.”