- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A day later, the victory still had not been fully digested.

After an unlikely comeback against Illinois in the first round, Virginia Tech prepared for today’s game against Southern Illinois and a possible trip to the Sweet 16 with some wondering how their season had life.

Trailing by 10 with 4:27 left, Virginia Tech scored the game’s final 12 points — including a Deron Washington go-ahead field goal with 44 seconds left — and relied on a rarely used full-court press and countless Illinois mistakes for a 54-52 victory.

“It’s definitely hard to believe we won that game,” said Hokies All-ACC guard Zabian Dowdell, who did not score in the second half. “Just looking at how I played and how some other guys played on the team and how things were going throughout the game.”

The win was the program’s first in the NCAA tournament since 1996, its last appearance. The Hokies have a chance to win two tournament games — equaling the most in one season — for the first time since 1967.

To do that, they will have to find a way to overcome another physical, grinding team in No. 4 seed Southern Illinois today at Nationwide Arena. The winner will move on to a Sweet 16 matchup against either top-seed Kansas or No. 8 Kentucky on Thursday in San Jose, Calif.

The Hokies are ready for another grind with the Salukis, which won the team’s only meeting 69-64 on a neutral court in November. Southern Illinois, which is smaller and quicker than Illinois, features senior sharpshooter Jamaal Tatum, the Missouri Valley’s player of the year, and the nation’s third-stingiest defense, allowing a mere 56.3 points a contest.

“The equivalent would probably be like smash-mouth football,” said Hokies forward Coleman Collins, the 6-foot-9 senior, whose team will have a considerable size advantage. “You know what they are going to do and they are going to do it every time and do it well — and it’s just on you to stop it.”

Southern Illinois runs a screening offense that milks the shot clock in order to create layups and open shots. On defense, the Salukis force the offense to work and be patient in halfcourt sets.

“That’s who they are,” Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said. “They put great pressure on the basketball. [Randal] Falker is a one-man press. He gets one pick a game. He deflects three, four passes in terms of scoring opportunities.”

Of course, like they struggled to do against Illinois, the Hokies want to speed up the tempo to create a transition game. Virginia Tech only surged back when it implemented its rarely used full-court press to create turnovers and a tempo more to its liking.

The Hokies average 72.1 points but were held to a season-low 54 by Illinois’ punishing defense and deliberate offense. Virginia Tech hopes to dictate the pace this time with Dowdell and backcourt mate Jamon Gordon, who finished with seven steals in the win over the Illini.

“I think Illinois prepared us to play against Southern Illinois, kind of sharpened our penetration,” said Gordon, the ACC defensive player of the year. “We need to do a better job of getting it to the post to make baskets.”

And now that the Hokies have one NCAA victory, they can play relatively stress-free in their attempt to make program history.

“I try to remind those guys and plant the seed that the first one is always the toughest,” Greenberg said of Friday’s win. “And when it hasn’t been [to the tournament] in 11 years, it’s really tough. When you have a goal and all of a sudden you have achieved that goal, what are you going to do next? I think that is something our guys understand better.”

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