CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After two days, five games and precious few moments of heart-pounding basketball, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament has reached its logical conclusion, with the two best teams, Duke and North Carolina, playing today for the championship.
Though they will meet in the final for the third time in the past four years -- the second time in a week -- the top-seeded, sixth-ranked Blue Devils and the second-seeded, seventh-ranked Tar Heels took disparate routes to get there.
While well-rested Duke had little trouble in disposing of North Carolina State yesterday, 93-72, North Carolina struggled for the second straight day. After building a 16-point lead over Virginia late in the first half, the Tar Heels held off the Cavaliers, 76-71, before a sellout crowd of 23,532 at Charlotte Coliseum.
"The good news is that we're in the finals. The bad news is that we have to play Duke," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose team has lost twice to the Blue Devils this season.
Though Smith often talks about the importance of senior leadership -- sometimes without merit -- this time the words rang true. Senior forward Rick Fox made several big plays and helped keep the Cavaliers from gaining control after they tied the score at 61; senior guard King Rice secured the victory for North Carolina (24-5) with a last-second steal.
After three-point shots by John Crotty and Bryant Stith cut a 72-65 lead for the Tar Heels to 74-71 with 12 seconds remaining, Rice missed the front end of a one-and-one. But he was able to strip Crotty of the ball and tip it ahead to Fox, whose layup finished off Virginia (21-11).
"I sort of had John trapped along the sideline, and I knew if I fouled him, we would still have the lead," said Rice, who earlier had hit a three-point shot, a pair of free throws and forced a turnover. "I figured that he was going to try to pass the ball. I guess right and got my hand on it."
Said Crotty, who led the Cavaliers with a game-high 23 points: "I was trying to get the ball to Bryant Stith. I think King fouled me. It was a tough call to make."
The steal by Rice and layup by Fox put an end to an heroic comeback by the Cavaliers, who trailed by 14 at halftime and had a number of chances to take the lead. But after Stith tied the game at 61 and was fouled with 4 minutes, 29 seconds to go -- he missed a subsequent free throw that would have put Virginia ahead -- Fox hit a three-point shot.
"They made some big plays when they needed to," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones. "We had been coming back and their senior leadership helped them take control."
How much that experience helps the Tar Heels today is debatable, considering that Duke (26-6) has won with relative ease in both meetings this season. The Blue Devils won by 14 in Durham in January and led by as many as 19 last Sunday in Chapel Hill before holding on for an 83-77 victory.
"It's going to be a very emotional game," said Fox, who, with senior center Pete Chilcutt, led North Carolina with 13 points yesterday. "But you can't go out there at 100 miles an hour. I think both teams will be ready to play. I don't think they'll be any less ready because they've beaten us twice."
The Blue Devils showed they were ready yesterday and that the layoff due to the first-round bye hardly had any effect. Duke jumped ahead of the Wolfpack, 22-7, in the first 6 1/2 minutes. N.C. State (19-10) spent the rest of the first half climbing back.
Though the Blue Devils' lead shrank to four late in the half, it was back to eight by halftime and into double digits early in the second half. N.C. State closed once to 10 (72-62) but missed its next five shots as Duke built its lead to as many as 23 late in the game.
"I thought we had some lapses in the first few minutes of the both halves, and they made big runs," said N.C. State forward Tom Gugliotta, who had 13 points in the first half and only a meaningless free throw in the second half. "It was tough to come back from that."
It was also difficult to contend with the fact that Duke was not only much deeper than N.C. State, but obviously more rested. The layoff since Sunday's victory in Chapel Hill didn't cool off the Blue Devils, who shot 34 of 55 for the game and made 17 of 23 in the second half, the best shooting performance by Duke in the ACC tournament since 1980.
Junior center Christian Laettner was nine of 14 from the field, finishing with 20 points and seven rebounds. Freshman forward Grant Hill was seven of 10 for 14 points, while sophomore guards Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill added 16 and 13, respectively. Rodney Monroe led the Wolfpack with 19, but missed 11 of 16 from the field.
"I thought we were fresher today and approached the bye very well," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team can become the seventh among the 10 who've received byes to win the ACC tournament. "We weren't tight. We attacked right away. Bobby with his handling and defense and Christian laid the foundation all the way."
A victory today could pave the way for the Blue Devils in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, where they have made the Final Four three years running. With Syracuse's shocking opening-round loss in the Big East tournament, it could give Duke the No. 1 seed in the East. But first things first.
"Right now we're only thinking about Duke and North Carolina," said Blue Devils forward Brian Davis.