Sunday, March 16, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg already had cried. He already had plead his case. All that was left was to rub his head and ponder the Hokies’ postseason possibilities.

Certainly, few teams will sit in so precarious a perch tonight as Virginia Tech, not after North Carolina center Tyler Hansbrough’s fallaway jumper with 0.8 seconds left lifted the top-seeded Tar Heels past the fourth-seeded Hokies 68-66 in the ACC tournament semifinals at Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

And now the Hokies (19-13) will wait a very long day to learn their NCAA tournament fate.

“Our guys are special, and they played as hard as humanly possible,” Greenberg said. “If anyone that watched that game that knows anything about basketball, if you don’t think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country, you’re certifiably insane.”

If the point of selecting the tournament field is to identify the 34 best at-large fields, then Virginia Tech made an emphatic case in Charlotte. The Hokies blitzed Miami in the quarterfinals, then led for nearly the entire final 30 minutes against the Tar Heels (31-2)

It was just the closing seconds that did them in. Freshman J.T. Thompson missed a jumper with 27 seconds that would have broken a 66-66 tie. Hansbrough (26 points, nine rebounds) grabbed the carom and, after two timeouts, Carolina guard Ty Lawson drove the lane and missed.

The rebound was batted off Virginia Tech forward Jeff Allen and right to Hansbrough, who drilled the 12-footer on the baseline. Deon Thompson then deflected freshman Malcolm Delaney’s inbound pass, permitting the Tar Heels to advance.

“We let up the last couple seconds by not getting a hustle ball, but we played the No. 1 team in the country to the last second of the game,” said senior forward Deron Washington, who scored 14 points before fouling out with 1:28 left. “I feel we did enough, but it’s all up to the committee.”

So much depends on what particular traits are emphasized. The Hokies had won five of six before yesterday, picking up their only top-50 victory along the way, but earlier in the season lost at Old Dominion and Richmond.

Yet from a pure eyeball test, playing the tournament’s potential No. 1 overall seed to the end in the final game might prove nearly as beneficial as a victory. And it didn’t hurt that the Hokies followed up a 39-point loss at North Carolina earlier this season with a sound performance in an intense crucible.

“I heard a lot of people say we were going to get beat by 30,” said junior guard A.D. Vassallo, who scored a team-high 17 points. “We thought we had a chance to come in and win this game. We had a chance there, we were up there, but we were just one jumper away.”

The Hokies took the lead with a 9-0 spurt in the middle of the first half, twice on Wayne Ellington 3-pointers in the final minutes. A pair of free throws by Ellington gave the Tar Heels their first edge in nearly 30 minutes, but Vassallo answered with two free throws to tie it with 1:10 left.

But there was no chance to reply to Hansbrough’s game-winning shot.

“We could have done more,” guard Hank Thorns said. “We should have won that game. We had it right there.”

The Hokies controlled the tempo and held Carolina to its second-lowest output of the season. They forced Hansbrough to work doggedly for his typical production and never trailed by more than three in front of a partisan crowd.

And now, Virginia Tech must hope it was enough.

“The committee has a tough decision,” Greenberg said. “There are a lot of good teams, and as many good teams are out there, I don’t know how many people can come into this environment and be in the position to win that game for 39 minutes and 39 seconds.”

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