BLACKSBURG - Malcolm Delaney hit two free throws with 23.6 seconds remaining, Terrell Bell made a key blocked shot in the waning moments, and the Hokies survived a halfcourt heave that nearly went in at the buzzer, thus enabling them to knock off Gardner-Webb 65-62 in a tougher-than-expected non-conference game Friday night at Cassell Coliseum.
Tech improved to 6-0 in season openers under coach Seth Greenberg and 36-10 in season openers since the opening of Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies also improved to 46-2 all-time in home openers in Cassell Coliseum.
The Hokies led by as many as 18 in the second half, but the Bulldogs just refused to go away. Gardner-Webb cut that lead down to one, 63-62, on two free throws by Aaron Linn with 24.3 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs, playing the first of a rigorous non-conference slate that includes games at Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wichita State and Kansas State, then fouled Delaney with 23.6 ticks to go, and Delaney, a terrific free-throw shooter, buried two to build the Hokies’ lead by back to three, 65-62. On the Bulldogs' ensuing possession, guard Grayson Flittner – who hit five 3-pointers on the evening – missed on a trey attempt, but the Bulldogs’ Aaron Linn got the rebound and flicked it to Flittner, who lined up another 3-point attempt to tie the game.
But Bell, a 6-foot-6 sophomore for the Hokies, blocked it, and Flittner fouled Delaney going for the loose ball with 2.9 seconds left.
“I was just reacting,” Bell said. “I was just playing defense. He [Flittner] was my man and I knew I had to get to him.”
Delaney went to the free-throw line, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. Linn quickly dribbled the ball to halfcourt and launched a 3-pointer to tie. The shot looked good when it left his hand, but it glanced off the rim and Hokies’ head coach Seth Greenberg exhaled in relief.
“This time of year, teams are not prepared yet,” Greenberg said. “We’re still a very young team. We had four sophomores out there most of the second half and two of them were playing new positions. That’s just the way it is.”
Tech got off to a great start, but struggled in the second half when the Bulldogs went with a smaller lineup and started packing it in on Jeff Allen. After scoring 17 points in the first half, the sophomore from Washington, D.C., got only one shot attempt in the second half, as the Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone forced Tech to launch shots from the perimeter – the Hokies hit just one field goal in the final eight minutes. Tech also struggled some on the defensive end, as the smaller Bulldog lineup forced Greenberg to play a smaller lineup to defend the sharp-shooting Bulldogs.
“We went small, and unfortunately, we’ve only practiced that small lineup one day and that killed our zone offense,” Greenberg said, referring to his small lineup of Allen, Bell, Delaney, A.D. Vassallo and Dorenzo Hudson. “Usually we would play J.T. [Thompson, who is injured] at the 4, but we had to play Terrell and A.D. there just because of games like this when we have to go small and guard shooters. We couldn’t have Lewis [Witcher] and Cheick [Diakite] out there trying to guard those shooters.
“We were very inept and that’s my fault. I should have done something very simple when we lost J.T. It’s hard to put in a zone offense in one day. But give them [the Bulldogs] credit. I’m not sure they’re a 2-3 zone team, but they are now. If we don’t resolve that with a smaller lineup, I’m sure we’re going to see more of that.”
Allen and Vassallo paced the Hokies with 19 points each. Allen hit 7-of-9 from the floor, including his lone 3-point attempt, and he also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. Vassallo hit 7-of-16, including just 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. He grabbed six rebounds and dished out six assists.
“I feel a little disappointed,” Vassallo said. “I feel like we could have played a little bit better. We had a meltdown in the second half, and we can’t have that if we want to jump to the next level. I’m just glad that we won. At the end of the day, we got the ‘W.’”
Delaney added 15 points and four assists, but he, too, struggled from the floor – Tech, as a team shot just 38.7 percent. Delaney hit 4-of-14, including 3-of-10 from beyond the arc.
Flittner, a junior from Sharpsville, Ind., led the Bulldogs with 21 points. He scored 17 in the first half, but missed all five of his 3-point attempts in the second half, finishing 5-for-14 from beyond the arc and 8-of-20 from the floor.
Linn added 13 points, while both Auryn MacMillan and Anton Silver chipped in 12 each. Gardner-Webb shot 36.4 percent from the floor, but out-rebounded Tech 44-38.
Tech continues its grueling season-opening stretch – which has the Hokies playing six games in 13 days – on Monday night. The Hokies take on Mount St. Mary’s in a game scheduled to tip off at 8 p.m.
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