The most challenging week of Virginia Tech's basketball season began with an improbable comeback against the first ranked opponent the Hokies had faced in a month.
Overcoming rampant foul issues, slothful defense and a future NBA lottery pick, Tech defeated 23rd-ranked Wake Forest 87-83 at Cassell Coliseum on Tuesday.
The Hokies (21-4, 8-3 ACC) enhanced their NCAA tournament credentials by rallying from 11 points down in the final 12:31. The win is not only Tech's most notable of the season, but also its fifth straight in ACC play, its longest such streak since joining the league in 2004.
This the Hokies did in unexpected style for a grimy defensive bunch that coach Seth Greenberg lovingly calls "junkyard dogs." They scored 55 second-half points, their most productive period this season, and shot 51.6 percent in the process.
Naturally, Malcolm Delaney, the league's top scorer, paved the road with a game-best 31 points. But Dorenzo Hudson's fearless drives and 21 points, and JT Thompson's relentless work inside for 16 points were equally indispensible.
Tech is 7-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, or in overtime.
"It's the kids," Greenberg said. "They're resilient and tough-minded. … They understand how to get back in a game. You get back in a game by making stops."
Tech long ago established that its margin for error is minimal. Against a ranked opponent, even more so.
The Hokies crossed that threshold early and often in falling behind 40-32 at halftime.
Slow transition defense and sloppy turnovers led to 12 Wake Forest fast-break points in the first half. Moreover the Hokies missed six free throws during the period, three by the usually reliable Delaney.
Tech's interior defense was helpless after Jeff Allen and Victor Davila went to the bench with two early fouls. Allen's were especially foolish, both coming well off the ball.
Al-Farouq Aminu promptly abused Thompson, Lewis Witcher and Cadarian Raines, scoring 14 of his 21 first-half points with Allen and Davila on the bench.
Greenberg elected not to gamble on either picking up a third before halftime, and wisely so given that Delaney kept the margin within reason.
When Allen and Davila committed early second-half fouls, Greenberg again adjusted sagely, using a 2-3 zone that the Deacons (18-6, 8-4) attacked tentatively. Shockingly, Wake forgot about Aminu, who scored only four second-half points while attempting just three shots.
Through no fault of its own — blame the scheduling fates and the ACC's lack of elite teams — Tech had gone a month without facing a ranked opponent. The Hokies went 7-1 after their Jan. 16 loss at Florida State.
But Tuesday's visit from Wake and Sunday's test at No. 6 Duke make this the season's most difficult week.
"All this stuff is useless Sunday," Greenberg said of the victory.
Many have commented, and will again, on Tech's schedule. Yes, it's been forgiving, and yes, it's partially due to an ACC rotation over which the teams have no control.
But say this for the Hokies: They have met most every challenge.
Entering Tuesday, only nine Division I teams had lost fewer games than Tech: Kansas, Syracuse, Villanova, Kentucky, Purdue, New Mexico, Brigham Young, Northern Iowa and Murray State.
This easily could have been Tech's fifth defeat. Aminu, a 6-foot-9 sophomore and lottery pick whenever he makes himself available, was a trying matchup, and the mistake-prone Deacons committed only 11 turnovers, giving the Hokies little easy offense.
Still, the Hokies won, and they're in second place behind Duke (21-4, 9-2) and join the Blue Devils as the only ACC teams unbeaten at home.
Tech outrebounded the taller and more athletic Deacons 25-15 after intermission, with Terrell Bell snaring 14 and blocking four shots. The undersized Bell (6-6) has little business posting such gaudy stats against an opponent this skilled.
But he embodies an overachieving team seemingly destined for a memorable season.
"We know our roles, and we know what we do best," Bell said.
"That's the hardest thing in coaching," Greenberg said, "getting guys to champion roles and getting them to feel good about it. You have to have unselfish guys.
"You can read a book and figure out X's and O's. If you've got good team chemistry and good team trust, you can get guys to play hard."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime
InsideInside •Defense helps Tech overcome Deacons in second half for 87-83 win. Page 2
•Roundup: Northeastern rallies at UNCW. Page 2
•Old Dominion knocks off Towson 78-67. Page 3