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At last, Virginia Tech catches a break

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Did you really think Virginia Tech would easily make the NCAA tournament?

Of course you didn’t.

If the Hokies were going to finally be in the Big Dance after a three-year drought littered with injuries and poor performances at the wrong times and a buzzer-beating loss three years ago to North Carolina in the ACC tourney, it had to occur in an epic fashion, right? Virginia Tech hardly does anything the easy way.

The Hokies could not have played worse in the first 20 minutes of their ACC quarterfinal game, shooting 17 percent overall, 18 percent on 3-pointers and 53 percent from the free throw line in a 19-point half.

If the selection committee was watching, they would’ve had good reason to kick the Hokies out of the field at halftime.

But Virginia Tech, despite playing its usual six players, clawed back into the game and took the lead on an Erick Green jumper with five seconds remaining. Following a timeout, Florida State’s Derwin Kitchen raced down the sideline and buried a corner jumper. The Seminoles raced out to mob Kitchen. The Hokies were devastated. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg couldn’t watch.

But the play was reviewable, and after a number of anxious moments official Bryan Kersey ruled the shot was not good after replays showed that it was barely on the tips of Kitchen’s fingers when the clock hit zero and the red light went on. The Hokies had beaten the Seminoles, 52-51.

“I was crying on national TV, but that’s alright,’’ Greenberg said. “But if the shot is counted, does that mean we’re out? It’s that thin?’’

Maybe. Maybe not.

The Hokies are just happy they don’t have to find out.

“For a team that has been so close, so many times, to finally have the basketball gods smile on them a little bit, it’s pretty cool,’’ Greenberg said.

The Hokies have had a bizarre season plagued with injuries. J.T. Thompson tore his ACL in the preseason. Allen Chaney was never cleared to play in the offseason. Cadarian Raines was not healthy and starting guard Dorenzo Hudson was available for only nine games because of a foot injury.

Yet Tech was able to get a signature win against Duke at home on Feb. 26. Before that, wins over Penn State, Oklahoma State and even Mississippi State were the only wins the team could boast about.

But the Hokies followed up that Duke upset by falling flat against Boston College at home, which meant it had been swept by the Eagles (also swept by Virginia) before losing to Clemson on the road.

Beating Georgia Tech in the first round Thursday was a must, and losing to Florida State on Friday would have given the selection committee an excuse to take a pass.

“People don’t realize how much it took for us to beat Duke,’’ senior guard Malcolm Delaney said. “We were done. We were drained. We didn’t lose our confidence, but we had some injuries that week.’’

Along with Jeff Allen inside, Delaney has had to carry the squad for most of the season. But the play of Green and fellow sophomore Manny Atkins has elevated the team during times of trouble. Delaney tried to make a winning play on the Hokies’ final possession on Friday. He drove into the lane but had to kick the ball back out to Green, who calmly buried the winning shot.

Greenberg said he told Green in the huddle at the under-four-minute timeout that he was going to hit a winning shot. Green said he had confidence in taking it, and Delaney had enough confidence to pass him the ball.

“I had a chance early in the season to win games and I took jump shots when I should have gone to the rim,’’ Delaney said. “[Green] was wide open, and I had confidence that he makes the shot.’’

Green was one of two Hokies at the other end with a hand in Kitchen’s face. When the shot went down, the swing of emotions strangled Virginia Tech.

“My heart froze when he hit that shot,’’ Delaney said. “I couldn’t watch the monitor. I just waited for the refs to signal. It was such a stress reliever. All I saw was Florida State reacting to the bucket being good. This is probably the biggest game I’ve been in, except the Duke game. We had to win this game with six people.’’

The Hokies have been burned too often on Selection Sunday to take anything for granted. A win on Saturday against Duke, however, would all but seal the deal. The Blue Devils might not have Nolan Smith for the semifinal because of a left toe injury suffered in Friday’s win over Maryland. Greenberg laughed at Duke playing a man down. He’s had to play with limited numbers all season.

Florida State, meanwhile, is expected to make the field with relative ease. Junior forward Chris Singleton, who missed the past five games with a broken right foot, ran around in warm-ups, but didn’t play.

“It was up to coach [Leonard Hamilton], but I understand it,’’ Singleton said. “I’m playing next week [in the NCAA tournament]. There’s no choice. I’m playing next week.’’

The selection committee has information on the Seminoles and will seed them accordingly. For Virginia Tech, though, the committee needed results, not news on an injured player.

Finally, the Hokies gave the committee a positive headline to discuss -- a last-second win that may have propelled them into the field.