A Cacophony in Cassell
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/22/03
On a grand night when Cassell Coliseum rocked like it did in days of yore, the surging Virginia Tech Hokie men's basketball team caught the Virginia Cavaliers flat-footed and tired, chewed them up, and spit them out, 73-55.
Bryant Matthews hung 30 points on the fading Cavaliers, including 15 in the last 11 minutes of the game, and Tech rode 16 steals to a rowdy victory over Virginia, the first Tech win in the series since an Ace Custis-led team knocked off UVa 72-64 in Roanoke on December 28, 1995.
The 30 points scored by Matthews, a career high, was the first time a Tech player has scored 30 since Troy Manns put up 30 on Xavier on March 2, 1997, in Bill Foster's last home game as Virginia Tech's head coach.
But the victory over the Cavaliers didn't just have me reaching for the record books to find out "The Last Time…" It also had me reaching into my memory to try and recall the last time the rafters on this venerable old building shook with so much noise and energy.
For a men's basketball game, it has been a long time. In March of 1999, the Hokie women filled Cassell Coliseum to the brim with 9,812 fans in a scream-fest victory over Auburn that catapulted Tech to the Sweet 16, but a rollicking men's game such as this one hasn't been seen since Tech knocked off New Mexico State in a third-round NIT game back in March of 1995.
That New Mexico State game, capped by a game-winning Travis Jackson three-pointer at the buzzer, was also the last time delirious students stormed the court, until Tuesday night. When Bryant Matthews threw down a dunk with 2.9 seconds to go, giving him his 29th and 30th points, it touched off a wild celebration that brought hundreds of students out of the stands and onto the court to celebrate with the Hokies.
Sure, Tech packed the house for a March 1996 game against #1 UMass, but that crowd went away unsatisfied, as Marcus Camby and company dominated the Hokies, 74-58. And Tech also sold out Cassell for their 2000 date with Virginia, but that game was played over Thanksgiving break, and a less-than-capacity crowd devoid of students was flat and uninterested as the Hoos coasted to a 64-48 win.
Neither one of those games, because they were losses, matched the frenetic atmosphere of this one. Tech got up 12-2 early, fought tooth and nail with Virginia through the middle of the game, and then blew open a 60-55 game with a 13-0 run over the last 3:10.
This game brings back memories not just of that 1995 New Mexico State game, but further back than that. Back to the 1980's, when massive, loud crowds and hotly contested games were the norm. Just like in those good old days of my VT youth, the students in the crowd brought energy and fire to this game, shrieking and bouncing and screaming as only students can. They no longer occupy the heart of the sidelines, in sections 7, 9, 11, and 13 like they used to -- they've been scooted to the corner and behind the basket -- but they can still rock Cassell like nobody's business.
They serenaded UVa's Keith Jenifer with chants of "Air Ball!" They got on Travis Watson's back and stayed on it, riding Virginia's beefy forward/center like a verbal horse and cheering gleefully when Watson fouled out with 1:48 to go and just 11 points to his credit.
And when it ended, they spilled onto the court like a school of piranha, devouring Hokie Coach Ricky Stokes and the Tech players at mid-court in a writhing, thrashing celebratory mass.
At 38, I'm too old for that stuff. I kept my place in section 12 and watched from the safety of Row N as the Tech students mobbed little-used players like Deonte Smith and Luke Minor, while game hero Bryant Matthews, unnoticed by the crowd, celebrated at the end of the court with teammates Eric Branham and DiMari Thompkins.
More bizarre than Matthews being ignored was the sight of Associate AD for Internal Affairs Tom Gabbard, nattily attired in a suit as usual, pulling hooting students down off the Cassell Coliseum rims like Blacksburg cops yanking drunks off the goal posts of Lane Stadium. What did you expect the man in charge of facilities, including new construction and maintenance, to do? He's got a budget to keep and doesn't want to blow it purchasing new basketball goals (talk about your unplanned expenses!).
In many ways, Tom Gabbard's presence aside, this game and the excitement surrounding it called up memories of the exploits of long-gone greats like Dale Solomon, Dell Curry, Bobby Beecher, and Bimbo Coles.
But in other ways, I was reminded that this is indeed the new millenium. As I left Cassell (after about ten minutes of watching the scene on the floor), I was greeted by the sight of four Tech students walking abreast on the sidewalk, all four of them chatting excitedly to friends on their cell phones. You wouldn't have seen that "back in the day."
Not to mention this little snippet of conversation I overheard between two other college students:
Student #1: "Dude, that game was phat!"
Student #2: "Yeah, dog!"
Chuckle. Welcome to the 1980's, kids. It was fun, wasn't it?