By AL FEATHERSTON
GREENSBORO -- For almost 25 minutes Saturday, Duke and N.C. State combined for one of the great offensive displays in ACC Tournament history.
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It might not have been quite as good as the 1974 title game on the same court, when N.C. State and Maryland took the game to a place it had never been (and hasn't been since). It wasn't as good as the days when Hurley was dealing to Laettner and Grant Hill and 90 point games were the norm, not the exception.
But it was still far better than the string of sloppy, low scoring games that have become the norm in the ACC in recent years. How good was it? Well, N.C. State shot 67 percent in the first half - and trailed by one, For every highlight reel play by T.J. Warren or Cat Barber, Duke had an answer from Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood or Rasheed Sulaimon.
The offensive duel continued early into the second half. When Ralston Turner nailed a 3-pointer off an assist from Warren with 15:42 to play, the two old rivals were tied at 45.
That's when everything changed.
Duke continued its offensive display, but N.C. State could no longer keep up. Hood hit a tough shot in traffic to give the Devils a two-point lead. Then at the other end of the floor after Tyler Thornton knocked the ball away from Warren at midcourt. Jabari Parker came up with the loose ball and took it the distance for a thunderous slam dunk.
Mike Krzyzewski suggested that the play "energized us defensively."
From that point, it was a different game as the Blue Devils slowly squeezed the life out of the Wolfpack. Hood gave Warren fits and with the Pack's star struggling to get the ball, N.C. State just didn't have any more options. Duke gradually stretched the four-point lead to double figures and held on for the 75-67 victory. Only a stretch of horrid free throw shooting prevented a rout.
"We couldn't close the door on them," Krzyzewski said, blaming the poor free throw shooting (8-of-19 in the second half) on fatigue.
But N.C. State, which had gone to the wire to beat Miami Thursday and to upset Syracuse Friday appeared to be the team with the real fatigue issue. Warren, who went almost 40 minutes in both wins, was visibly gassed late in the game.
"We didn't seem as fresh as we have been," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said.
The loss would seem to kill N.C. State's hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, despite an impassioned argument from Krzyzewski that State, Florida State and Clemson were all worthy of bids. Interestingly, he framed the debate by comparing the ACC with the Atlantic 10.
"I'll probably get in trouble for saying it … the Atlantic 10, they're a good conference," he said. "I hear people saying there are six [NCAA] teams in there. Come on, I mean, they're good, but put them in our conference and put them through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through."
The interesting part of the quote was his choice of the A-10 to hold up to the ACC - at a time when ACC officials were negotiating with the A-10 to lock up the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as a site for two future ACC Tournament.
But he's right about the ACC meat grinder.
Just look at the tournament - 13 games so far and 10 of them were in doubt going into the final two minutes. The 2014 tourney has had everything - great crowds, close games (although not always pretty games), great individual performances and even controversy.
Is it a coincidence that Duke and Virginia - the two teams meeting in the finals - each had to use a controversial officiating decision to reach Sunday's 1 p.m. championship game?
The two teams met just once in the regular season with Duke winning at home by 69-65, thanks to a clutch 3-pointer by Rasheed Sulaimon.
Virginia reached the ACC finals for the first time since 1994 when the Cavaliers survived a thrilling semifinal against Pitt - thanks to some controversial officiating.
The Cavs got a couple of questionable calls late as Pitt fought back. Virginia's Joe Harris converted a backdoor layup for a key basket. But the pass was a bit behind him and Harris briefly carried the ball on his hip. It easily could have been called a travel. Moments later Talib Zanna put a shot up on the rim for Virginia and while it seemed to be hanging there, Virginia's Anthony Gil tapped it away. Goaltending? Maybe.
But neither of those calls measured up to what happened with 10 seconds left, when Pitt's James Robinson came up with a steal and raced downcourt for a breakaway lineup. As he put the ball up, he was absolutely hammered - with no call. His layup cut Virginia's lead to one, but he didn't get a chance for the game-tying free throw.
Even Virginia's Akil Mitchell, who laid the blow on Robinson, admitted that he was surprised there wasn't a whistle. Jamie Dixon, who checked the replay before meeting the press, was livid over the no call.
Instead of Pitt having a chance to tie the game at the foul line, Virginia got two free throws from Gill and escaped with a 51-48 win when Justin Anderson blocked Robinson's desperation 3-point try.
The Virginia victory means that after all the national attention focused on the three ex-Big East teams and their success in the expanded ACC, the tournament finals will be contested by two of the ACC's old-line members.
In fact, Virginia was Duke's first ACC Tournament opponent in the 1954 quarterfinals in Raleigh. Hal Bradley's Blue Devils won that one 96-68, despite a record 42 points by Virginia guard Buzzy Wilkinson. Actually, his point total was a bit of a fraud. With Duke leading 48-28 at the half, Virginia coach Evan Male decided the game was unwinnable and turned Wilkinson loose to go after the tournament record of 41 points set by Maryland's Gene Shue in the Southern Conference Tournament a year earlier. Wilkinson got the record, but he hit just 13 of 44 shots from the floor as Duke coasted to the 96-68 win.
Duke has dominated Virginia in the tournament - winning 15 of 18 matchups. But the two teams have never met in the finals.
Duke, which leads the ACC with 19 championships, has actually appeared in more than half of the ACC's championship games - 31 of 61. The Blue Devil presence in the finals means that either Duke or North Carolina have played in the title game for 18 straight years.
A victory today would give Coach K his 14th conference title, breaking his current tie with ex-UNC coach Dean Smith.
THE WINNING COACH
The victory over N.C. State was Krzyzewski's 55th ACC Tournament victory. That's more than the other 15 current coaches have combined (49).
Of course, that's a bit unfair. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has zero ACC Tournament wins. But he had 50 tourney wins in the old Big East Tournament. Jamie Dixon has 12 Big East wins, while Mike Brey has 10 Big East wins.
Officially, UNC's Roy Williams is second on the ACC Tournament active win list with 15 wins. Leonard Hamilton is third with 10 wins.
Krzyzewski is three wins short of Dean Smith's all-time record of 58 ACC Tournament wins.
REWATCHING THE CLEMSON FINALE
It's a lot of fun to be courtside at the ACC Tournament, but it has its disadvantages too. For one thing, there's no access to replay.
When the Duke-Clemson game ended late Friday night - decided by two somewhat close officiating calls (or in one case, a no-call), I had to write my reaction without benefit of seeing either replay. Later that night, back at the press hotel, I saw the final sequence replayed on ESPN.
The way ESPN presented the two plays - K.J. McDaniel's foul on Rodney Hood and the no-foul on Rod Hall - seemed to perpetuate the old "Duke gets all the calls" mantra. Saturday morning, riding over to the Coliseum on a shuttle bus, I got into a debate with a TV commentator about the calls. I should mention that he is a former N.C. State player.
I mention that because everybody's perception seems to be shaped by their loyalties. I know mine are and I also know the State mindset is that there is an ACC officiating conspiracy against them.
Still, we agreed that McDaniels clearly fouled Hood with 3.8 seconds left. The end zone replay showed the Clemson player shouldering the driving Duke player to the ground.
But we strongly disagreed on the Rod Hall play.
Here's what I saw on the ESPN replay (which I watched two dozen times this morning on my computer). Hall catches the inbounds pass moving toward his basket. Tyler Thornton is trying to defend him and is running parallel down his right side. About 30 feet out, Hall crosses over, putting Thornton on his left side. But Thornton is beside Hall, not ahead of him.
As Hall approaches the basket, Rasheed Sulaimon is set up about eight feet out to take a charge. He's absolutely still with his arms to his side (actually, the he has his hands together, covering his private parts). But he's set so early that Hall has time to see him and to cut left - I've watched the replay over and over and I do not believe there is the slightest contact between Hall and Sulaimon - it's possible that his leg scraped Sulamon's as he slid by, but I don't think so.
However, Hall's cut brings him closer to Thornton, who jabs the ball loose as Hall dives (and I do mean dive at this point and not drive … as he cuts left past Sulaimon, he launches himself sideways) toward the basket. If there is a foul, it's for Thornton's reach-in.
But that leads to another point - how the game is officiated.
Whatever you think of the Sulaimon/Hall calls, there is no question that the Duke-Clemson game was officiated wildly differently than the earlier UNC-Pitt game. That game featured 58 fouls and a combined 73 free throws. Every touch - sometimes, every hard look - was a foul.
But the Duke-Clemson game was a different story. Neither team got into the one-and-one in the first half. There were a few more fouls late, but an amazing amount of contact was allowed - on both sides. The Rod Hall play at the end of the game would have been a foul in the UJNC-Pitt game. So would the missed layup by Sulaimon that set up Hall's go-ahead layup with 7.4 seconds left.
That's the problem with the Duke-gets-all-the-calls mantra. Yeah, Duke was fortunate on the final play. But watch the Sulaimon layup with under 20 seconds left … watch the replay of the foul call on Amile Jefferson with 48 seconds left that sends McDaniels to the line. There are always questionable calls - and just as many go against the Devils.
And don't forget that Clemson shot 21 free throws … Duke attempted 18.
That's been the rule this season. In ACC play, Duke has attempted 406 free throws in 19 games. Duke's ACC opponents have attempted 407 free throws.
Back when Duke made more free throws than their opponents attempted (in 2001), the discrepancy was a big deal. Now that free throws are even, the mantra is: "It's not the number of fouls … it's when the fouls are called."
One more point about the officiating.
The ref who called the questionable foul on Jefferson late was a guy named Bill Covington. If he's unfamiliar to ACC fans, that's understandable. He was working his third ACC game ever.
And guess who was in position to make the call on the Rod Hall drive in the final second?
If you are wondering why such an unfamiliar ref was in such a key spot, blame Ray Natili. The veteran ACC ref made a last-minute commitment to work the Big Ten Tournament. With so many top refs locked into tournament contracts across the country, the ACC had to scramble to fill the void. Covington, normally an MEAC official, is on the ACC's secondary list.
I was told that he graded very well for the game, despite being at the center of the final controversy.
NO SLEEP 'TIL BROOKLYN
Sports Illustrated broke the news Friday that the ACC was going to move the tournament to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. After one more year in Greensboro and a year in Washington, D.C., the ACC will move to the Big Apple in 2017 and 2018.
The deal is not done yet. The hang-up is the inconvenient fact that the Atlantic-10 Conference has a contract for the Barclays Center through 2027. Until the ACC can work out an agreement with that conference, the ACC's plans are on hold.
Look for it to happen, however.
There's an interesting tie that few have noted. The commissioner of the A-10 for the last six years is Bernadette McGlade, who used to work for the ACC. In fact, she was the first person John Swofford hired after getting the ACC job.
Right now, it looks like the ACC is negotiating a series of regular-season doubleheaders with the A-10 to be played in the Barclays Center. It would be good exposure and good money for a league that is kind of situated between the power leagues and the mid-majors.
The ACC has been trying to get into New York ever since expansion added Syracuse (which bills itself as "New York's team"), Notre Dame (which has a strong subway alumni presence in New York City) and Pitt into the league. The league's first choice was Madison Square Garden, but the self-styled "the most famous arena in the world" insisted on a long-term deal.
The ACC isn't going to do that. The tournament will rotate, but it will always come back to its Tobacco Road roots on a regular basis.
AN APOLOGY TO LINDY'S
Earlier this week, I wrote a note about some of the boneheaded voters for All-ACC honors. I only named one writer (because of TWO baffling vote), a guy I don't know named Mike Jula.
I called him a writer for Lindy's Magazine because that's how he's listed on his application to the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, which has administered the vote for 61 years.
But it looks like Jula has no association with Lindy's Magazine. An e-mail from Lindy's denied any association with - or any knowledge of -- Mr. Jula.
So I apologize to Lindy's … but not to the guy who voted James Michael McAdoo first-team All-ACC AND left Jabari Parker off the ACC all-freshman team.