Lane Stadium is great.
It's a 67 thousand-seat mecca to nearly 30 years of football greatness. I've seen some of the most exciting games of my life there. It has one of the best entrances in the history of college sports.
But I've never seen it steal a team's soul.
The Clemson Tigers came into Cassell Coliseum as the fifteenth best team in the country, the fourth best team in the ACC, and in possession of a no-doubt invitation to the NCAA Tournament. They left it a sweaty mess, seemingly overwhelmed by the atmosphere and the opponent who thrived off it.
The Virginia Tech men's basketball team not only beat Clemson 65-58, they pressure cooked them with the help of 9,275 fans. Cassell was loud. Cassell was hot. And Cassell was ready to do anything it could to force a win.
Sure, the Tigers were without their leading scorer. They were without their starting point guard. They also melted into a puddle that had to be wiped from the floor by the time the horn sounded.
Don't let the final score fool you, the Hokies were up 14 with just over two minutes to play and controlled the entire second half. Clemson hit one of eight free throws after intermission, and relied solely on guard Marcquise Reed jacking contested triples late in the shot clock to remain afloat.
Outside of Reed's prayers, Tech boa constrictor-ed the hell out of them. Clemson was held to just 39% shooting, turned it over 11 times, and committed a number of dumb fouls after being out-positioned for a rebound.
And with every missed shot and absent-minded giveaway, the crowd grew louder. Which is good, because it's not like Buzz Williams' bunch played a flawless game.
The Hokies also shot poorly (35% from the field), they gave up a sizeable lead near the end, and missed a lot of open threes. But as the Tigers fell apart, Tech capitalized.
Justin Robinson got out and ran any chance he could, finishing with 14 points and five assists. Kerry Blackshear did his best battling Elijah Thomas down low, and sealed things with some free throws late. And Devin Wilson (yes, that Devin Wilson) hit a pair of enormous three pointers (no, I'm not kidding, THAT Devin Wilson) when the Hokies needed them most.
Tech made the most of their opportunities, scoring 17 points off turnovers and going deep into their bench to tire out a short-handed Tiger squad. And their intensity could only be matched by the people in the stands, an entire community willing their way to another March Madness trip.
"Since the Miami game we've done zero percent of anything relative to offense," Williams said. "And in many respects, we've been at the same clip offensively, but at a distinctively better clip defensively. We're forcing teams that are incredibly well coached into late, contested threes. Our turnover rate defensively has went through the roof, and the paradox is that we value the ball more."
The Hokies have Louisville up next in Blacksburg on Saturday. And if the same team shows up with the same crowd, they'll be really tough to beat.
A few quick thoughts
Man, that first bench lineup Buzz used was FEISTY.
Early on, the head Hokie replaced most of the starters with the bench mob of Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne, and Chris Clarke to pair with Wilson and Justin Bibbs. They're not the most talented group, nor are they the prettiest to watch offensively, but good lord do they try hard.
Bede, Clarke, and Wilson flew around the perimeter on defense, causing major problems for the Tigers as they tried to dump the ball inside. Bede and Clarke both ended up with a steal, and lead a stretch that ended up with a few open threes (including one swished by Horne), and a balls-to-the-wall six point swing in Tech's favor.
"It's not only good for (the bench guys), but it's good for (Robinson and Blackshear), because they can get a drink of water on the bench, and it's not completely disintegrating," Williams said. " I think that because those kids are playing more of a roll, the togetherness of what we're trying to do is reflected in how we play in a game. But if you were at practice every day you can kind of see it growing, and maybe there's a little bit of a crescendo. And hopefully there's more than two weeks left in our season, and so hopefully that'll keep going."
I don't know how much Williams trusts all of the young guys, but if they can provide a bit of energy in a four minute spurt each half, their playing time is well worth it. (And, for what it's worth, those guys came off the bench before Ahmed Hill. I don't think it means anything, because you can never trust Buzz's thinking game-to-game when it comes to his rotations, but it's interesting.)
The last time we heard an ESPN color commentator scream that there was no doubt the Hokies would make the NCAA Tournament, Dick Vitale was dodging students after Tech upset Duke at home. So when Jay Bilas said it in Charlottesville last weekend, it felt untrustworthy.
But now, with three wins over teams with top-10 RPI and an outside chance at a double bye in the ACC Tournament, I think it's fine to be a little less nervous as we hurtle towards Selection Sunday.