CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When North Carolina State and Georgia Tech met here a year ago at the Charlotte Coliseum in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament, their fortunes were headed in opposite directions.
The Wolfpack, caught in the swirl of controversy surrounding its former coach, Jim Valvano, couldn't wait for its season to end. The Yellow Jackets were riding the crest that would lead to both an ACC championship and a trip to the Final Four.
But yesterday, the confidence exhibited by N.C. State was as evident as Georgia Tech's uncertainty. With the help of a seven-minute outburst early in the second half, the Wolfpack pulled away and won easily, 82-68, to advance into today's semifinal against top-seeded Duke. The sixth-ranked Blue Devils received a first-round bye because of Maryland's absence.
"Last year at this time we weren't enjoying ourselves," recalled Chris Corchiani, who vowed to leave N.C. State if Valvano was fired, which happened a month later. "Now we're back to having fun. We're a very confident team right now."
In the other semifinal, second-seed North Carolina (23-5) will meet sixth-seed Virginia (21-10), which beat No. 3 seed Wake Forest (18-10) last night, 70-66. After trailing seventh-seeded Clemson by as many as 12 points in the first half, and by six at halftime, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels pulled even but struggled to put away the Tigers before securing a 67-59 victory.
"They're better at holding the ball than they were a month ago, so right before halftime, we said, 'OK, you guys are quick, we'll take it possession by possession,' " said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose team played without freshmen Clifford Rozier and Brian Reese because of a curfew violation earlier in the week. "They won that battle but we won the game."
While nearly everyone here is expecting a Duke-North Carolina final tomorrow, N.C. State (19-9) has other ideas. The Wolfpack remind some people of last year's Yellow Jackets, whose lack of depth was overcome by the abundance of talent in "Lethal Weapon III" -- Dennis Scott, Brian Oliver and All-America guard Kenny Anderson.
The Wolfpack go six-deep at most, and are also led by three players: senior guards Rodney Monroe and Corchiani, and junior forward Tom Gugliotta. Monroe scored a game-high 24 points yesterday, as all five N.C. State starters scored in double figures. Anderson had 15 points and eight assists for Georgia Tech (16-12).
"They remind me a lot of our team last year," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, whose Yellow Jackets beat N.C. State three straight times last year and lost three in a row to the Wolfpack this season. "I love Corchiani and Monroe. I've loved them from the time they came into the league. They can make a run."
And the run they made helped tear apart Georgia Tech yesterday. Leading 42-40 with 16:17 remaining, N.C. State went on a 22-7 spurt and the Yellow Jackets never got closer than eight. Monroe had nine of the first 11 points in a little more than 2 1/2 minutes, and sophomore center Kevin Thompson finished the run with layups on feeds from Corchiani.
Monroe led all scorers with 24 points, but had plenty of help.
Corchiani, the all-time assist leader in Division I basketball, padded his totals with nine assists to go along with 17 points. Gugliotta had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Thompson added 15 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Sophomore forward Bryant Feggins finished with 10 points and six rebounds.
"I think the difference in this team the past month has been Thompson," said N.C. State coach Les Robinson, who used only one sub for a total of four minutes. "You know what Rodney and Chris and Gugs are going to do. It's the other guys who we need to come up with big games."
That has been Georgia Tech's problem all season: finding someone to complement Anderson. The sophomore guard finished with 15 points and eight assists, but missed 11 of 17 shots and committed five turnovers. The Yellow Jackets, who shot 30 of 70 from the field, missed tomany easy shots to stay close.
While Georgia Tech has enough quality victories (North Carolina, Arizona) and have beaten some other potential invitees (Temple, Wake Forest) to get a bid tomorrow to this year's National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, the Yellow Jackets do not anticipate hanging around long. Nor does Anderson.
"It's very frustrating," said Anderson, who is expected to renounce his college eligibility after the NCAA tournament and make himself available for the National Basketball Association draft. "But you've got to take the bitter with the sweet and move on."