ROCK HILL, S.C. -- For a moment, it looked as if the Georgia Tech women's basketball team could pull it off.
All weekend, the unheralded seventh-seeded Yellow Jackets had taken the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for a thrill ride, knocking off No. 4 Maryland, then 18th-ranked Clemson to reach last night's championship game.
Their reward was a meeting with No. 1 Virginia, and just as they had beaten the Terps and Tigers on the last shot, the Yellow Jackets had the ball on the last possession and a chance to win.
But senior forward Allison Echols' desperation three-pointer with three seconds left fell short, and the Cavaliers had pulled out a 70-69 win before 4,154 at the Winthrop Coliseum to capture the ACC tournament, and a certain top seed in the NCAA tournament in two weeks.
"I don't think there was a loser," said Georgia Tech coach Agnus Berenato. "Virginia won the game and the trophies and the hardware, but we won the game because of pride and dignity."
The Yellow Jackets (17-13) pushed the Cavaliers (29-1) as hard as anyone since Virginia regained its top ranking against Maryland with a 75-74 victory in College Park last month.
Georgia Tech led Virginia 53-42 with 12:50 left, the Cavaliers' largest deficit of the season.
But the Cavaliers, and Dawn Staley, their 5-5 senior star, responded to the challenge.
Staley, the returning national Player of the Year, had 24 points -- 17 in the last 11:45, including the game-winning 16-foot jumper with 1:45 left -- to get the Cavaliers off the mat and to their second ACC tournament title in three years.
"Considering it was my last ACC game, I didn't want to lose it," said Staley, named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "We haven't been very successful. It's important to leave on a good note."
Still, the story was Georgia Tech's persistence and tenacity. The Yellow Jackets, who before this weekend had never won an ACC tournament game in 13 years, came within a whisker of knocking off the top three seeds in the tournament.
After the game, Berenato began lobbying for Tech, which has never played in the postseason before, to get an NCAA bid.
The current wisdom presumes that Virginia, Maryland, Clemson and North Carolina will get bids when they are announced Sunday, and that Florida State, North Carolina State and now Georgia Tech will fight for one or possibly two places in the 48-team field.
"We lost to the No. 1 team in the nation by one point," said Berenato. "I think for my team, we have to think that we can go to the postseason. How can they keep us out of the postseason?"
Whether they do or not, for this weekend, the Yellow Jackets got something of a measure of respect and something to build upon.
"Georgia Tech this weekend established history for the first time," said Berenato. "We wanted to make a difference. That's the most important thing for us."