- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Virginia Tech guard Jamon Gordon was convinced his team was on its way home to Blacksburg. The Hokies’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1996 looked to be a short one.

They shot a barrage of bricks, gave up offensive rebounds and let Illinois dictate its plodding, Big Ten style of physical, halfcourt basketball.

Illinois led by 10 points with 4:29 left before the Hokies implemented their rarely practiced full-court press and escaped with a 54-52 win in Nationwide Arena. Virginia Tech scored the game’s final 12 points to advance to the second round, despite shooting 35.7 percent and being outrebounded by 15.

“I thought we were done,” Gordon said. “We deserved to lose. Man, you play so bad. It’s the worst we have played since we have been here. But somehow we found a way to win. I don’t know what to think.”

The Hokies (22-11), seeded fifth in the West Region, won their first tournament game since beating Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1996. Virginia Tech will meet fourth-seeded Southern Illinois, which beat Holy Cross 61-51, tomorrow afternoon.

Deron Washington gave the Hokies their first lead since early in the first half when he drove and banked in a 10-foot jumper to make it 53-52 with 44 seconds left. However, Illinois (23-12) had several chances to tie or take the lead.

After A.D. Vassallo made the second of two free throws to give Virginia Tech a two-point lead with 23 seconds left, Brian Randle missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer and was fouled going for the rebound with 4.7 seconds left. The 6-foot-8 power forward, who shoots 57.7 percent from the line, missed the front end of a one-and-one.

A mad scramble ensued on the rebound and a jump ball was called with 0.1 seconds left. The alternating possession went to the Hokies, who inbounded the ball to set off a wild celebration.

“It’s very disappointing,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “I don’t think we treated life that bad, but it sure didn’t treat us good this year.”

Washington led Virginia Tech with 14 points, while teammate Coleman Collins added 13. Gordon was silent most of the game before Hokies coach Seth Greenberg put the full-court press on with his team down 13. Gordon, the ACC defensive player of the year, finished with 10 points, seven assists and seven steals.

Warren Carter led Illinois with 15 points but could not stop his team from faltering down the stretch. The Fighting Illini shot 7-for-14 from the line in the second half and failed to convert on numerous second-chance opportunities.

“They had every opportunity to distance themselves in the game,” said Zabian Dowdell, an All-ACC guard who scored just eight points, none in the second half. “We finally put the press on. That was kind of our last resort. We were able to get turnovers and speed up the game and get some easy baskets.”

The Fighting Illini completely controlled the game, building a 47-34 lead with their plodding style of play. The Hokies shot 29.2 percent in the first half.

“I didn’t know it was going to be that ugly, but it’s just another example of the resiliency of our basketball team,” said Greenberg, who was back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since taking Long Beach State in 1995. “We obviously were a little bit dysfunctional at times offensively. We squandered a number of scoring opportunities, but we continued to defend.”

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