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Keeping up their guards

January 22, 2007 12:50 am

BLACKSBURG--It was fitting that the last two Virginia Tech players who handled the ball in last night's 67-64 victory over Maryland were Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell. Gordon controlled a loose ball and fired it to Dowdell, who dribbled away the final seconds of a game that was critical to both teams' NCAA tournament hopes.

The debate will go on until the Hokies host Virginia on Feb. 10: which team has the better backcourt. It would have been virtually impossible for Dowdell and Gordon to upstage yesterday's exploits by the Cavaliers' J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary against Wake Forest, but Tech's two seniors didn't do badly.

Dowdell, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the week, scored a game-high 19 points. Gordon suffered through a 4-for-17 shooting night,

but filled up the statistic sheet with 16 points, seven rebounds and six steals.

It didn't quite match Reynolds' 40-point outing against Wake Forest (supplemented by 19 from Singletary, the ACC's leading scorer). But it was enough to push the Hokies (14-5) to 4-1 in the league--and closer to NCAA lock status for the first time in a decade.

"It's very comforting" to have them around, Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "Those guys want to win so bad. There were not a lot of X's and O's in those timeouts. It was, 'We've got to get stops.' Those guys showed some toughness. The games we weren't able to win a year ago, we're winning now."

And there's no mystery about why. The Hokies' chances rest squarely on the shoulders of their guards, who had their way for most of the night against a Maryland lineup that often featured two freshmen in the backcourt (Greivis Vasquez and Potomac High School graduate Eric Hayes).

"Any time you play against players who aren't that experienced, you try to take advantage of them," said Dowdell, who had four of Tech's eight points in overtime.

NCAA tournament success is often all about guard play, and the Hokies have that key ingredient. Dowdell is averaging 17.3 points a game, Gordon 12.1; they also rank third and second, respectively, in the ACC in steals.

And both are in the league's top 10 in the critical category of assist-to-turnover ratio--although their seven combined giveaways last night won't help that average.

Still, they fuel the Hokies' frenetic style and cause headaches for opposing guards. They shredded Duke's backcourt in a win at Cameron Indoor Stadium and outplayed North Carolina's young backcourt in a home upset of the then-No. 1 Tar Heels.

"They know how to play. They've been around a long time," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "They're really good together; they complement each other.

"They're not just scorers; they're passers, and they know how to find the open man. That's a complete player; it's what every player wants to work towards being."

One stretch early in the second half illustrated Tech's backcourt wizardry. Sandwiched around a pair of Gordon free throws were dunks by Hokies Coleman Collins (on a nifty pass from Gordon) and Cheick Diakite (on a similar feed from Dowdell).

Each time, the Tech guard got into the lane and forced one of Maryland's foul-prone big men to leave his man and help. The result was an easy basket for Tech's frontcourt, which is athletic but will never be compared to the Celtics of the late 1980s.

Last night's win was critical for the 23rd-ranked Hokies, who probably will fall out of today's Top 25 after Wednesday's loss at Florida State but are sitting pretty in the NCAA tournament picture.

It was another missed opportunity for the Terps (15-5), who fell to 1-4 in the ACC and 4-17 in league road games over the past three seasons--with two of their next three away from Comcast Center. Still, Williams is looking only as far as Wednesday's home game with Georgia Tech.

"If we play like we played tonight, we'll be OK," he said.

The same can be said for the Hokies, who'll be tested many more times. Five of their next seven games are on the road--including their next two (at Miami and Georgia Tech). Still, Tech's battle-tested guards aren't about to back down from anyone--including Virginia's.

Dowdell was preparing for last night's game and missed the Cavaliers' exploits yesterday. His eyes grew big when told that Reynolds had hung 40 on Wake.

He and Gordon didn't combine to match that total last night. But they got what they wanted: an important win.

"It's a rivalry, but we're not big trash-talkers," he said of the Cavaliers, who won both of last year's head-to-head meetings. "There's a great deal of respect, and a lot of competition. Any time you play them--or anyone--you try to outplay them. We're trying to be the best backcourt in the nation."

Whether Tech's is tops in the country, or the ACC, or even the state, is a matter of opinion. But both teams are pretty happy with the guards they have.

To reach STEVE DeSHAZO: 540/374-5443

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