GREENSBORO - Exactly 50 years ago, the ACC experienced one of the great moments in its history, when Everett Case was lifted on the shoulders of the N.C. State players to cut down the nets at Reynolds Coliseum after the Pack's triumph in the ACC championship game.
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Case was dying of cancer. He had put together the 1965 N.C. State team, but four games into the season, his health issues forced the Gray Fox to step down. Three months after Case's resignation, the second-seeded Wolfpack won the title behind a career night from sub Larry Worsley, who became the first and only player to receive the newly renamed Everett Case Award (previously the ACC Tournament MVP) from Case himself.
There was a bitter side to that wonderful moment. N.C. State's joy was purchased with Duke's misery. Blue Devil coach Vic Bubas has called that loss the most bitter defeat of his career, especially since it cost his No. 10 ranked team a chance to compete for the national title.
Now, a half century later, another Duke team with its eyes on the NCAA prize faced N.C. State in another ACC Tournament. Not nearly as much was at stake - Duke is going to the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in Greensboro. And I doubt that anybody on the current Blue Devil coaching staff or team remembers Bubas' ancient disappointment.
But all of the current Blue Devils do remember what happened when they faced N.C. State two months ago in Raleigh. On the afternoon of Jan. 11, N.C. State humbled an undefeated Duke team, 87-75. They watched the red-clad crowd rush the floor at the PNC Arena to celebrate their defeat.
Payback is a …
For the second time this season, Duke has gotten a second shot at a team that has beaten it. Several weeks ago, the Devils paid Notre Dame back for a four-point loss in South Bend with a 30-point victory in Cameron. And this time, they turned that 12-point loss in Raleigh into a 24-point victory - 77-53.
Even that raw score doesn't provide a full measure of Duke's dominance. The Blue Devils squashed State from the opening minutes, leading 7-0, 13-3, 22-9, 28-11, and 35-13. It was 49-22 at the half - the second largest halftime margin in ACC Tournament history. The only bigger first-half rout was Duke's 59-21 first-half rout of last-place Virginia in the 1999 opening round.
That was a terrible Virginia team. This N.C. State team is pretty good as they proved against Duke in Raleigh and down the stretch in the ACC regular season. The Pack proved its credentials with a solid 81-70 victory over Pitt Wednesday night, behind a brilliant 34-point performance by sophomore point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber.
Barber was scoreless against the Devils, going 0-for-7 from the floor. Trevor Lacey, who burned Duke for 21 points in Raleigh, scored four points this time on 2-for-8 shooting. N. C. State as a team shot under 36 percent from the floor and was 5-of-18 from the 3-point line (after hitting 10-of-16 3s in Raleigh).
"I'm a little surprised we played defense like we did," Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Duke coach suggested that N.C. State was a bit tired after their victory over Pitt 24 hours earlier. He called his own team "unbelievably ready."
It was certainly unbelievably balanced with six players scoring in double figures, including subs Grayson Allen (11 points, 3 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots) and Marshall Plumlee (a career high 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting). But everybody contributed - Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor got the team off to its fast start, senior Quinn Cook shook off a bout with the flu and had a 15-point, no turnover game. Matt Jones added 11 points and no turnovers.
Freshman Tyus Jones didn't get into double figures, but he did pass out eight assists with just one turnover.
In fact, Duke finished with 14 assists and just five turnovers - one in the first half.
"I thought Duke was terrific today, " N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "They played sensational in the first half."
Lacy admitted that N.C. State was confused by Duke's matchup zone. The Devils opened in an extended trap - intended to slow Barber down as he brought the ball up. Then Duke dropped into a matchup zone designed to keep the ball away from Barber and Lacey.
At the half, Duke was so dominant that Matt Jones, Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee outscored State 24-22. It wasn't quite that lopsided in the second half, but the margin fluctuated between 24 and 30 points throughout the half.
Now Duke must prepare for a third matchup this season with Notre Dame, which reached the semifinals by manhandling Miami in Thursday night's late quarterfinal game.
"Notre Dame is one of the most explosive offensive teams in the country," Krzyzewski said, adding, "We're happy to be playing on Friday. It will be a late game though. We have to adjust to that."
It would have been nice to get Miami - the third team to beat Duke this year and the only one the Blue Devils haven't trampled in revenge.
It would have set up nicely - Duke has played five teams twice this season and has averaged a 24-point improvement in the second game:
- Wake Forest +8/+43
- Notre Dame -4/+30
- Syracuse +8/+19
- UNC +2 (OT)/+7
- N.C. State -12/+24
It's hard to forecast how a third matchup will play out. But it's clear that Duke couldn't be in better shape going into the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament.
NOTES - N.C. State did have one impressive sequence, collecting six offensive rebounds on one first-half possession before Abdul-Malik Abu scored. … Duke's win means that N.C. State has not swept the season series from Duke since 1985. In fact, that's the only time it has happened since 1955 … Duke won its 94th ACC Tournament game - two more than North Carolina. The Devils improved to 15-9 against N.C. State in the Tournament. … Coach K is now 56-20 in ACC Tournament play - two wins short of UNC coach Dean Smith for the most in tourney history … State's Barbor fell hard after running into an Amile Jefferson pick late in the first half. He was helped off the court and taken to a locker room. He did not return. Gottfried couldn't confirm the injury, but Barber was reportedly undergoing concussion protocols.
THE QUEST FOR 30
With the victory over N.C. State, Duke improved its record to 29-3. The Blue Devils will go for their 30th win of the season Friday night against Notre Dame.
That's a significant number.
Duke already has 13 30-win seasons, starting with 37 wins in 1986. The Blue Devils went into this season tied with Kentucky for the NCAA record in that regard. But the Wildcats have already gotten to 30 wins this season, so Duke needs to reach that milestone to remain tied for first place with Kentucky.
The Devils have a wide lead in 30-win seasons among its ACC rivals. North Carolina is second with nine 30-win seasons. Louisville has seven (including three in a row coming into this season). Syracuse has six, Pitt two and N.C. State one. Virginia hit 30 wins for the second time last year and is poised to do it again this year after getting victory No. 29 Friday against Florida State.
No other ACC team has had a 30-win season.
It's a long way off, but if Duke wins out this season, the 2015 Devils can match the school single-season record of 37 wins - a total Duke achieved in 1986 and 1999.
PRESS NOTES - GOOD AND BAD
Every school offers media packets that contain season stats and notes. Those notes can range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
At one extreme, Tim Bourret of Clemson included a note that startled me - current Tiger coach Brad Brownell has the best ACC winning percentage of any Clemson coach in history. After five years, Brownell is 42-46 in league play - a 47.7 winning percentage.
That's better than Oliver Purnell (44.6), Rick Barnes (43.8) and Cliff Ellis (38.4).
That's a good note.
At the other end of the spectrum is the note Chuck Walsh wrote in the Florida State notes. He described big man Michael Ojo as "the most rapidly improving player in the ACC and quite possibly in all of college basketball."
The "rapidly improving" Ojo averaged 2.5 points and 3.0 rebounds a game last season as a sophomore. This season as a junior, Ojo has averaged 2.3 points and 2.5 rebounds. His playing time has diminished from 11.9 to 9.2 minutes a game. His assists are down, his turnovers and blocked shots are virtually the same.
Maybe "rapidly improving" means something different in Tallahassee than it does to the rest of us.
THE OTHER GAMES
Virginia 58, Florida State 44
The start was lopsided and the final score was fairly wide, but in between, Florida State gave Virginia quite a battle.
The Cavs rocketed to a 16-2 lead and were up a comfortable 34-17 at the half. But the stubborn Seminoles, who blew most of a 20-point lead the day before, opened the second half with a 17-5 run to get within five.
In fact, they twice had the ball down five. On the first occasion, Boris Bojanovsky turned the ball over with a BS behind the back pass in the lane. A few minutes later, the 'Noles cut it to 44-39 and this time they got a good shot - a Xavier Rathan-Mayes 3-point attempt coming off a solid screen.
But Rathan-Mayes, so deadly Wednesday when he scored 30 against Clemson, couldn't get it down against the Cavs - he had just 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting (and never got to the FT line).
From that point, it all fell apart for Florida State. Virginia got two points on a Mike Tobey dunk off an inbounds play. At the other end, Montay Brandon got called for an offensive play for doing what Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon got away with all game - using his bulk to knock the defender back to create space.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton went ballistic, earning a technical foul.
Brogdon converted both free throws and the lead was nine again. That was it. Virginia controlled the final five minutes and moved on into the semifinals.
It wasn't all good news for the Cavs. Justin Anderson, who missed the last eight games (first with a broken finger, then with appendicitis) returned to action, but looked ineffective in his first five-minute stint. Later in the first half, he took an ugly fall on a missed dunk and got up holding his left elbow. Anderson did return briefly after the fall, but saw no action during FSU's second-half rally.
He finished with no points (0-2 shooting), two rebounds, a foul and a turnover.
In addition, senior Darius Atkins, recently elected ACC Defensive Player of the Year, went down hard early in the second half and suffered an ankle injury. He briefly returned after getting the ankle re-taped, but moved with an obvious limp and soon returned to the bench.
Their health will be an issue for the Cavs moving on. Virginia coach Tony Bennett did not sound too worried after the game.
UNC 70, Louisville 60
Add Kennedy Meeks to the long list of UNC players who climbed out of his death bed to play a decisive role in a Carolina victory.
Well, maybe Meeks had never been given the last rites, but after UNC's victory Wednesday, Roy Williams did tell the press that Meeks was still sidelined with a mysterious illness and would probably not play against Louisville. But the 6-9, 270-pound freshman did play and his presence did make a difference.
Actually, Meeks struggled when he came off the bench in the first half. He missed four of five shots and managed two rebounds in eight minutes of action.
Louisville dominated the Tar Heels over the first 20 minutes, especially inside, but wasted a ton of opportunities by settling for quick (and, bad) shots. The Cards went to break up five, but it should have been much, much more.
North Carolina quickly tied the game and even took a brief lead with a 7-0 run to open the second half. But the game quickly became a back-and-forth thriller as the two teams traded the lead 11 times in the first 13 minutes of the second half.
Louisville had a 57-56 lead with seven minutes left when the game turned in UNC's favor. And the hefty Mr. Meeks helped turn it. Actually, Brice Johnson scored the first four points on an inside shot and two free throws, giving UNC its biggest lead at three points.
Terry Rozier missed a 3-pointer at the other end and Meeks stretched the lead to five by bulling his way to the basket. After Montrezl Harrell missed two free throws, Meeks tipped in a miss by Johnson to give UNC a 64-57 lead. He helped protect that margin by blocking a shot by Rozier at the other end.
Louisville really had no answer to UNC's surge. The Cards' response was to jack 3's - not a great strategy for a team that finished 4-of-22 from the 3-point line.
It actually was a pretty difficult introduction to the ACC Tournament - having to make its debut against North Carolina in Greensboro … with an overwhelming pre-UNC crowd in the packed arena. It was the first loss in a conference postseason tournament for this crop of Louisville players - they came into the game riding an 11-0 tournament record with three consecutive championships - two in the Big East and one in the American Athletic Conference.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino fell to 1-7 all-time against UNC (0-3 at Kentucky; 1-4 at Louisville).
Notre Dame 70, Miami 63
Miami was fighting for its NCAA life against Notre Dame.
It wasn't much of a fight in the first half.
But the Hurricanes exploded in the first minutes of the second half, erasing a 18-point halftime deficit in the first 10 minutes and even taking a two-point lead with just over six minutes left. Notre Dame regained the lead quickly, but couldn't put the Hurricanes away until the final seconds.
Miami, which hit 1-of-10 3-pointers in the first half, was only a little better in the second, hitting 4-of-10. Notre Dame went 12 minutes without a field goal and Angel Rodriguez came off the bench to score 15 points.
But with Miami on top for the first time, Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia hit a 3-point from the corner . After a stop, Jerian Grant hit a driving shot to put the Irish up three. It stayed close the rest of the way, but Miami could not quite catch up.