Someone call Tom Hanks.
Not only is there crying in basketball, it has gone off the charts even before midnight strikes on Selection Sunday.
Just when it looked as if Seth Greenberg and Virginia Tech were going to be turned into National Invitation Tournament pumpkins for a fourth straight season, the clock at Greensboro Coliseum struck zero a few minutes before midnight on Friday. In one of the wildest scenes of an already crazed week of college basketball, Greenberg went from crying in disbelief to crying for joy in a matter of about two minutes.
First, he sat on the bench, head in hands, completely stunned after it appeared that a baseline jumper by Florida State’s Derwin Kitchen had beaten the buzzer to give the Seminoles a 53-52 win over the Hokies in the ACC quarterfinals.
Yes, it had apparently happened again. In 2008, it was North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough at the buzzer in the ACC semifinals. In 2009, it was a controversial call in the final seconds in the quarterfinals against (you guessed it) North Carolina. In 2010, it was another quarterfinals debacle, with Miami’s Durand Scott turning into Phil Ford in the final minutes.
In each case, the Hokies arguably came up short of reaching the NCAA tournament by the margin of defeat in each of those games (respectively: two, three and five points). They had become America’s bubble team — college basketball’s answer to the rabbit in the old Trix commercials. Every time they reached for their NCAA tournament bid, someone came along at the last possible second to snatch it from them, saying, “Silly Hokies, NCAA bids are for Tar Heels and Blue Devils.”
So when Kitchen’s shot Friday bottomed the net and referee Bryan Kersey signaled that it had beaten the buzzer, it looked as if Greenberg’s life as college basketball’s answer to Job would continue for at least another season. He no doubt would have been reduced to giving his annual speech to reporters insisting he wasn’t going to campaign for a bid before spending 15 minutes campaigning for a bid. Then, on Sunday night, he would sit with his team and watch 11 Big East teams go into the bracket, as if Virginia Tech’s former league was saying, “Glad you left us now?”
But then, just when Greenberg was trying to figure out how to find his composure to go shake Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton’s hand, fate — and replay — intervened.
So while the Seminoles celebrated and the Hokies fought back tears, Kersey and crewmates Mike Eades and Bernard Clinton went to the scorer’s table to look at the replay. Most people in the building were convinced the shot would count when it went in. But when the replays began to pop up on the scoreboard, it became evident fairly quickly that Kitchen had been a 10th of a second late. Not two-10ths late. One-10th late. The ball was still on his fingertips as the clock hit 0.0.
The officials weren’t about to make a decision until they were certain, so they checked all available camera angles and looked at the best one several times.
“It probably took two, maybe 21 / 2 minutes,” Virginia Tech sports information director Bill Dyer said. “But standing there it felt more like 20.”
Finally convinced beyond doubt, Kersey stepped away from the scorer’s table and gave the “no-good” signal. Greenberg was still crying at that point — although now the tears were of joy. Job had finally been freed; the rabbit will actually get some Trix come Sunday night.
“For a team that’s been so close so many times to finally have the basketball Gods smile on them, it’s pretty cool,” said Greenberg, who teared up again when members of his family walked in during his postgame interview. “They did everything humanly possible to win this game.”
Even then, it took more than that, it took 21st-century technology to get the Hokies over the hump.
Greenberg is a detail-a-holic as a coach. He will sometimes change defenses — on the same possession — or call three plays during one offensive set. He has been known to get upset if he thinks his team has been assigned the wrong bench or by the government’s decision to move Daylight Savings Time up a couple of weeks. (Okay, the last one might be an exaggeration.)
Yet while the officials watched the tape of the final tenths-of-a-second over and over, he sat on the bench in an almost Zenlike state, almost as if he was refusing to hope that he and his team were finally going to catch a break.
“There was nothing I could do,” he said. “I figured I would wait to hear one way or another. I had no idea. I love Derwin to death and he made a tough shot but we slowed him just enough in the back court to find a way to win.”
Knowing that the basketball Gods had finally smiled on him after three straight years in NIT purgatory, Greenberg wasn’t going to take any chances by pushing his luck. When he was asked if he thought his team had finally wrapped up an NCAA tournament bid, he shook his head and said: “Sunday is Sunday. We’ll see.”
The Hokies are in, even after Saturday’s loss to Duke in the semifinals. No one will ever mistake the NCAA basketball committee for a charitable organization, which is why Virginia Tech needed to win Friday to, for all intents and purposes, take the decision out of the committee’s hands. Other teams who hoped to climb off the bubble this week — Baylor, Nebraska, Boston College, perhaps even Clemson (which dealt with its own heartbreak on Saturday, blowing a late seven-point lead to, who else, North Carolina) — and others, have played their way into the NIT. Maryland, which had hoped for a miracle, didn’t get one.
On a cold, dreary evening in Greensboro, in an arena that had all but emptied out, the Hokies finally got their miracle and sprawled across the finish line. The fact that they got there with literally not a 10th of a second to be spared doesn’t matter. They got there.
The tears flowed late Friday night. Sunday, sometime shortly after 6 o’clock in Blacksburg, the champagne will flow. Few coaches, few teams, few schools have deserved to celebrate more than Virginia Tech.
They might even want to break out some Trix.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.