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March 10, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

In Like A Lion

The ACC finished its regular season Sunday and will start the conference tournament with the play-in game Thursday between 8th-seeded Clemson and 9th-seeded Florida State. The final day of regular season action added to the anticipation of this year’s tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

No. 10 Duke and North Carolina finished their respective seasons with the annual rivalry game. Chapel Hill hosted the second edition of this year’s classic rivalry. And oh what a game it was.

At no point in the entire game did one team lead by more than seven points. There were 21 lead changes. North Carolina fended off a frantic Duke run at the end. Senior guard Dahntay Jones drained a deep three that would have tied the score at the end of regulation, but he failed to get the shot off in time.

After it was all said and done, the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils 82-79 to prove the rivalry is alive and well. Tar Heel freshman guard Rashad McCants led all scorers with 26 points while fellow freshman guard Raymond Felton finished two rebounds short of a triple-double: 18 points, eight rebounds and ten assists.

For Duke, freshman forward Shelden Williams delivered 20 points and eight rebounds as he was nearly unstoppable in the paint. Williams gives Duke the post presence it hoped one of its freshman would be able to deliver by season’s end. Williams will be a force opponents in the ACC and NCAA tournament must reckon with.

Despite Williams’ inside play, the Tar Heels out-rebounded Duke 32-31, a rare feat for North Carolina. The most important statistic in this game was the shooting percentage. North Carolina punished the nylon by draining 56 percent of its shots. Duke shot a very respectable 45 percent. Both teams played hard and both deserved to win. But, unfortunately, every game must have a winner and loser.

The hostile Tar Heel crowd fed off the energy of its star players to make life difficult for the Blue Devils down the stretch. Bad blood nearly boiled over when Jones accidentally hit Felton in the face and cut him right in front of the Duke bench with just over eight minutes remaining.

After coach Matt Doherty and trainers helped Felton up, Duke assistant coach Chris Collins had words with Doherty. Senior guard Andre Buckner followed Collins’ lead and pushed Doherty, who moved toward Buckner amidst a chaos of players ready to push and shove. After referees regained control and assessed technical fouls against the teams’ benches, the teams battled to the finish of an electrically charged game.

Felton returned to the floor shortly and delivered a three-pointer and critical free throws down the stretch. McCants got his groove back by playing with confidence and reclaiming his position as the Tar Heels’ go-to player in the clutch. He hit a critical three-pointer to give North Carolina a three point lead.

The Tar Heels, who at times struggle from the charity stripe, drained five of six free throws in the final 30 seconds. The only miss was the second free throw by Felton with three seconds remaining. Jones sprinted down court to get in range for a legitimate three. He must have found his sweet spot because he unloaded a perfectly arched shot that hit nothing but the bottom of the net. But he let go just a split second too late. Tar Heels claim a thriller to finish 6-10 in conference play.

Virginia Sweeps Maryland

The Virginia Cavaliers ended a seven-game losing streak by defeating No. 14 Maryland 80-78 in overtime in Charlottesville. The win marked the second of the season over the Terrapins, which became the only ACC team to sweep Maryland this season. Senior forward Travis Watson delivered a monstrous performance – 26 points and 15 rebounds. Rarely utilized senior forward Jason Rogers saved his best performance for last. Rogers tallied 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes. The crowd appreciated Rogers’ valiant finale and responded with deafening support.

The most noteworthy element of the game was the rebounding margin. Virginia out-rebounded Maryland by 23, which is amazing because the Terps are terrific on the glass. Senior guard Drew Nicholas led all scores with 27 points, but it wasn’t enough to push the Terrapins to victory. With the win, Virginia finished 6-10 in conference play and earned the 6th-seed in the ACC tournament. Had they lost, the Cavaliers would have met Florida State in the play-in game Thursday.

Previewing the Tournament

The ACC needed to wait until the final two regular season games finished to determine tournament match-ups. Entering the day, Clemson, Virginia and Florida State could have shifted positions from sixth to eighth while Duke and Maryland could have switched spots as second and third in the ACC. At the end of the day, Maryland maintained its second place position by winning a tiebreaker over Duke. Virginia claimed the sixth seed with a win over Maryland while North Carolina earned the seventh seed with its thriller over Duke.

So, Clemson is the big loser after the final day of action, and it didn’t even play a game. The 8th-seeded Tigers must face 9th-seeded Florida State Thursday night in the play-in game. The winner plays top-seeded No. 9 Wake Forest at noon on Friday.

Second-seeded Maryland will play 7th-seeded North Carolina Friday night at 7. Third-seeded Duke will play 6th-seeded Virginia Friday at 9:30 p.m. Fourth-seeded NC State will play 5th-seeded Georgia Tech at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

The ACC tournament offers an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as its prize. Every team other than Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke could make use of that automatic bid. A win over Georgia Tech in the first round may be enough to push NC State off the bubble and into the tournament. Two wins will almost certainly do it. For the others, win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

Every team in the ACC is NIT eligible with a winning record, except Florida State. But the Seminoles can get to .500 by beating Clemson and Wake Forest to reach 15-14. Florida State is a dangerous team, but even if it gets past Clemson, beating Wake Forest on virtually no rest in Greensboro, N.C., may be too much to ask for.

North Carolina and Virginia enter the tournament fresh off upset victories over the cream of the ACC’s crop. Both teams need that automatic bid to make the Big Dance. Based on desperation, I’m willing to wager that one, if not both, pulls off the quarterfinal upset over the higher seed. The match-up between NC State and Georgia Tech pits two teams who struggle away from home. Greensboro is technically a neutral site, but the hour drive from Raleigh beats five hours from Atlanta. Both teams must win, the game will simply come down to who wants it more.

Wake Forest claimed its first outright ACC regular season championship in 41 years. The Demon Deacons are a legitimate contender to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. Senior forward Josh Howard is an amazing player. But the Demon Deacons must prove their worth first in the ACC tournament. Wake Forest will play desperate opponents. Look for Wake Forest to squash its first two opponents and enter the championship game with momentum.

Having already predicted North Carolina and/or Virginia to upset a quarterfinal opponent, I’ll go ahead and send that team to the championship game against Wake Forest. Desperation is a great motivator. Based on the last ten games, it’s hard to select Virginia in that spot. But whether it’s North Carolina or Virginia, Wake Forest is on a mission. Picking the top seed to win the tournament isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb, but in this situation there are several strong reasons to believe Wake Forest will approach each game as if it needs to win it to make the tournament.

ACC Player of the Week:

Virginia senior forward Travis Watson earned this week’s honors with a pair of double-doubles. Watson tore apart the competition, averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Maryland a loss to Georgia Tech.

ACC Rookie of the Week:

Duke forward Shelden Williams averaged a double-double last week with 16 points and 12.5 rebounds while blocking six shots in two games. Williams is the force in the post Duke will need to make a run in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

ACC Coaches’ Clipboard:

Several ACC coaches could strengthen their job security with one or two tournament wins. Clemson’s Larry Shyatt, North Carolina’s Matt Doherty and Virginia’s Pete Gillen could prove that their teams’ regular season struggles are ancient history and that they have the coaching acumen necessary to win in the post-season.

Tournament Schedule:

After the play-in game Thursday and quarterfinals Friday, the semi-finals will start Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The second semi-final will follow the first one at 4 p.m. The ACC championship game will begin at 1 p.m. on Sunday.


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