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Al Featherston On Sunday At The ACC Tournament!

TAMPA -- Two years ago, after three Big Four schools reached the semifinals of the 2005 ACC Tournament in Washington’s MCI Center, I noted: You can take the ACC Tournament out of Tobacco Road, but you can’t take Tobacco Road out of the ACC Tournament.That observation came back to me Sunday as I watched North Carolina defeat N.C. State 89-80 in the St. Pete Times-Forum for the 2007 ACC Championship. It’s the 46th time in 54 years that a Big Four team has won the title -- and the 29th time that two Big Four teams have met in the finals. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the tournament is played in Greensboro, Charlotte, Washington, Atlanta or Tampa -- or Boston, which may join the rotation in a few years -- Tobacco Road owns the ACC Tournament.

Earlier this season, it looked as if the ACC’s eight non-Tobacco Road members were going to put the Big Four teams in their place. Four of the top five teams in the regular season standings were from outside the state of North Carolina, the first time in ACC history that the Big Four didn’t produce at least two of the top four teams in the standings.

For the season, the outsiders were 25-20 against the four legendary quartet of teams from Tobacco Road.

But in the tournament, the Big Four teams were 5-1 against the outsiders -- the only loss was Wake Forest’s narrow defeat at the hands of Boston College. As usual, the most dangerous opponents for Big Four schools in the tourney were other Big Four schools -- both Duke and N.C. State were eliminated by their neighbors.

And North Carolina got its toughest test in this tournament -- by far -- from a gutty N.C. State team that had already pulled off three upsets in three games. The Tar Heels got their title and should justly be celebrated for that. But it’s hard not to feel that the real glory this weekend belonged to a Wolfpack team that lived the famous words of Jimmy Valvano -- “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” I got chills watching the crippled Engin Atsur and his weary teammates fight their way back from 16 down with just under 14 minutes left to play to pull within one point of the Tar Heels.

“These guys were absolutely amazing,” Sidney Lowe said of his team. “I’m by no means disappointed. I told our guys, ‘You can be hurt, but don’t be disappointed.’”

Up until a point, the tournament appeared to be a replay of 1997, when Herb Sendek’s first N.C. State team stormed out of the play-in game to reach the finals. But the ‘97 Pack didn’t have enough left to play with North Carolina in the finals. The Tar Heels broke the game open late in the first half, led comfortably in the second game, then coasted to a 10-point victory.

That matches Roy Williams’ experience in the Big 8/Big 12, when he twice faced teams in the conference title game that were trying to win four games in four days. “They just ran out of gas,” he said.

That’s what appeared to be happening to N.C. State late in the first half Sunday after the Pack hung tough for 18 minutes. Wes Miller threw in back-to-back 3-pointers in transition to help UNC open up an eight-point halftime lead. And when the second half started, the Tar Heels seemed to be in total control over a tired, hurting Wolfpack team.

North Carolina led 56-40 with 14 minutes left, when N.C. State did the impossible -- the Pack fought its way back into the game with a 29-14 run that was keyed by freshmen Brandan Costner and Dennis Horner. The comeback ultimately fell short as senior Reyshawn Terry saved Carolina with eight straight points during the crucial stretch. Still, that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of N.C. State’s achievement.

“Coming into the game, we knew they were a little tired, but we knew they weren’t going to give up and it was going to be a dogfight,” UNC’s Terry said.

Williams had words of praise for N.C. State.

“It’s hard to believe that team finished 11th in our league,” he said (although N.C. State actually finished tied with Wake Forest for 10th). “I think it says something about how deep our league is.”

The Tar Heel coach was campaigning at the last minute for the ACC to get more than the seven teams most expect to receive an NCAA bid. N.C. State should get an invitation to the newly restructured NIT -- along with Clemson and Florida State.

UNC will begin its pursuit of the NCAA title Thursday in Winston-Salem. Williams voiced the hope that winning the title would help his young team in the coming tournament. “I hope they enjoy the feeling they had cutting down the nets,” he said. “I hope they’ve learned what it’s like to stand there and make free throws down the stretch.” As happy as Williams was with his first ACC title, he couldn’t resist one last jab in the debate over the value of the tournament.

“It’s special because it’s the ACC,” he said. “But I’ve got to tell you, when I came back here to coach, I had won nine regular season championships [at Kansas] and four or five conference tournament titles. And I was the coach who couldn’t win the big one. Let’s not get carried away. This doesn’t compare to winning the national championship.”

Maybe not, but it obviously meant a lot to a Wolfpack team that had to win to get into the NCAA Tournament. And it was special for at least one of Williams’ players.

“For me, I grew up in North Carolina and lived there my whole life,” senior Wes Miller said. “My Dad’s been taking me to the ACC Tournament and my Mom tells me I was there when I was one year old. So it means the world to me. It’s something I always dreamed about as a kid. Going to these games as a kid is one of the things that inspired me to work at the game. I can’t really describe how it feels.”

Sidney Lowe knows what it feels like. And, I suspect, so do his players -- even if they did come up just a bit short.

***

PERSPECTIVE: ESPN columnist Bomani Jones wrote about Christian Laettner’s reception Saturday when he was introduced at the St. Pete Times Forum as one of the legends of the ACC. According to Jones, the booing crowd reflected Laettner’s status “as the greatest villain in the game.”

Fair enough. Jones is a columnist and has a right to his opinion. A wish he knew a little more history. For instance, he talks about how Bobby Hurley wasn’t hated because he was a blue-collar guy -- the son of a “tough-as-nails high school coach and probation officer.” Aside from the little fact that Hurley was every bit as annoying to rival fans, Jones apparently doesn’t know that Laettner was also a blue-collar kid from a tough neighborhood -- the son of a typesetter at the Buffalo newspaper. The only child of privilege on those great Duke teams was Grant Hill, the son of a former NFL star and Yale graduate.

While Jones concedes that there’s some question as to the impact of Laettner’s “stomp” on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 East Regional title game, he goes on to call the play, “one of the most vile things ever done on a basketball court” and calls it “unforgivable.”

Really?

Has Bomani Jones ever heard of Luke Witte and seen photos of the assault on him at Minnesota? Did he ever see a videotape of the blindside blow from Kermit Washington that flattened the side of Rudy Tomjanovich’s face? Did he watch Ron Artest go into the stands in Detroit last season, precipitating a brawl that would have embarrassed an English soccer hooligan? Did he see the unproved sucker punch to the balls that Chris Paul delivered to Julius Hodge? And does the fact that Charles Barkley once spit on a little girl at courtside (in his defense, Barley was trying to spit on her father) register on Jones‘ scale of what‘s unforgivable?

Laettner put his foot on Timberlake’s chest and drew a technical foul. Timberlake bounced off the floor laughing and clapping his hands in celebration. A few years ago, Dennis Rodman kicked a cameraman at courtside, leaving him withering in pain.

Which was the more vile?

My point is that there have been a lot of shameful acts on the basketball court -- hundreds that are much more dangerous, much more violent -- and much more vile -- than Laettner’s transgression. In my universe, the players who racially abused the first blacks to integrate the game were more vile. To my mind, the guys who tool money from gamblers to throw games or shave points were more vile.

It’s okay for non-Duke fans to boo Laettner -- he revels in it. But you’d expect a professional journalist to have a little better sense of perspective.

FRESHMAN Brandan Wight won the Everett Case Award as the tournament MVP. He’s just the fifth freshman to win that honor, following Phil Ford in 1975, Sam Perkins in 1981, Jerry Stackhouse in 1994 and Jason Williams in 2000.

What’s truly unique is the makeup of the All-Tournament first team. Wright was joined as a unanimous vote-getter by freshman Brandon Costner of N.C. State, who set a new freshman scoring record for the tournament with 90 points in four games. Also on the team were UNC freshmen Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, plus N.C. State junior Gavin Grant.

That’s four freshmen on the all-tourney team -- nothing close to that has ever happened before,

The second team was also young with three sophomores -- Courtney Fells and Ben McCauley of N.C. State and Tyrese Rice of Boston College. Seniors Al Thornton of FSU and Engin Atsur of N. C. State also made the second team.

What’s interesting is that it leaves off UNC senior Reyshawn Terry, whose eight straight points in the final minutes of the championship game were vital in holding off N.C. State down the stretch.

WEIRD HISTORY: In the course of researching something else, I came across a bizarre bit of history surrounding the 1954 ACC Tournament and the AP poll. Going into the ACC’s first tournament, three teams from the new league were ranked in the poll published on Mar. 2, 1954:

  • 11. Duke (21-5, 9-1 ACC)
  • 17. Maryland (22-6, 7-2 ACC)
  • 18. N.C. State (21-6, 5-3 ACC)

Okay, that’s not unreasonable. The league played a wildly unbalanced schedule that first year, so even though N.C. State was seeded 4th in the inaugural ACC Tournament, the Pack was one of the pre-tourney favorites.

So in the tournament, top-seeded Duke routed Virginia, but lost a heartbreaker to N.C. State in the semifinals. Maryland beat up on Clemson in the opener, then lost to Wake Forest in overtime in the semifinals. N.C. State narrowly beat North Carolina in the opener, edged Duke in the semifinals, then beat Wake Forest in overtime to win the first ACC title.

The next week’s AP poll ranked the ACC this way:

  • 10. N.C. State (24-6)
  • 14. Maryland (23-7)
  • 18. Duke (22-6)

The only strange thing about that is that Maryland jumped three spots for having almost exactly the same ACC Tournament that dropped Duke seven places. N.C. State’s leap from 18 to 10 is understandable.

My problem comes the next week. Duke and Maryland had no more games in that era when just one team participated in the NCAA Tournament. The ACC didn’t allow participation in the NIT.

N.C. State represented the ACC in the NCAA Tournament and did fairly well. The Pack beat No. 7 George Washington in the first round, lost a close 78-71 game to No. 2 (and eventual national champion) LaSalle in Philadelphia, then bounced back to win a consolation game from unranked Cornell.

The next -- and final AP poll came out at the end of March and the three ACC teams were ranked this way:

  • No. 15 Duke (22-6)
  • No. 20 Maryland (23-7)
  • Unranked -- N.C. State (26-7)

So let me get this straight -- Duke didn’t play and jumped three places? Maryland didn’t play and fell six places? Strange, but I can accept that. What I can’t understand is that N.C. State went 1-1 against two top 10 teams, plus added a third win, and dropped from 10th place to out of the top 20??

If anybody can offer a rational explanation for those rankings, I’ve love to hear it.

FREUDIAN TYPO: For those who inquired, the use of Hans rough for Hansbrough in Saturday’s ACC column was a mistake. Believe it or not, but the truth is, I’m not clever enough to come up with that on my own. Not consciously ) (Actually, that was my fault. I saw it but as you'll see elsewhere on the site, I've been pretty distracted lately - Julio).

THE SIGHT OF Carolina fans wearing plastic masks in honor of Tyler Hansbrough reminded me of 1977, when UNC fans heading for the Final Four in Atlanta taped two fingers together in honor of Walter Davis, who was trying to play with a broken finger.

BOAT MANIA: My incredible shrinking boats threw me a curve Sunday morning. After watching the ship berthed in front of the St. Pete Times Forum shrink from a massive cruise liner on Thursday, to a large fishing trawler on Friday to a two-decked pleasure cruiser on Saturday, I was expecting to see a row-boat Sunday.

Instead, the berth was occupied by another cruise ship -- this one 50 percent larger than Thursday’s leviathan. But when the circling blimp showed overhead shots of the area just before tipoff, there was no ship at the dock!

I think somebody’s messing with me.