CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Isn't this starting to get old?
If the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament has long since become a rite of spring, then a championship game between Duke and North Carolina seems to be just as inevitable.
For the second straight year at the Charlotte Coliseum, for the fourth time in the past five years and for the seventh time in the tournament's 39-year history, the top-seeded Blue Devils and third-seeded Tar Heels will meet for the title, beginning at 1 p.m.
Though today's game will have a lot of importance along Tobacco Road, especially in the 11 miles between the two campuses, its outcome will have little bearing on the seedings of the NCAA tournament, which begins later this week with the Blue Devils defending their national championship.
"We always say that every one of our games is important because Duke is playing in it," said Duke coach Mike LTC Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils beat Georgia Tech, 89-76, in the first semifinal. "We place importance on every game. I'd like to see it for the kids, a chance to win the tournament because it's something they haven't done."
"A lot of people said when we were losing those four in a row that we wouldn't win a game in the ACC tournament or in the NCAA tournament, so I guess we're two up," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels built a 12-point lead and survived a furious rally by Florida State to win, 80-76.
While the easy victory for top-ranked Duke (27-2) over cold-shooting Georgia Tech (21-11) was pretty much expected, and mostly routine, North Carolina's win over second seed Florida State (20-9) was not. Start with the fact that the Tar Heels (21-8) had lost badly to the first-year ACC team twice during the regular season.
"We had a lot of pride, and we didn't want to be swept by a team in their first year in the league," said junior forward George Lynch, who after two poor games against the Seminoles came up big yesterday with 21 points and 14 rebounds. "If they made their threes, it might have been interesting."
It also might have been a little more intriguing had the Seminoles not called timeout with 12.4 seconds left, having cut what was a 71-59 deficit to 75-73 on a rare three-point shot by point guard Charlie Ward. Florida State had previously called its final timeout.
Said Ward: "I didn't know we were out of timeouts, but the guys on the bench jumped up to call time, so everybody did. It was just one of those things."
The result was a technical foul on the Seminoles. The Tar Heels, who allowed Florida State back in the game by missing a bunch of free throws, got some breathing room when Hubert Davis made a pair. On the subsequent possession, Ward fouled Derrick Phelps, who made one free throw. He missed the second, but Lynch tipped the ball out to Brian Reese. He made a free throw for an 80-73 lead with 6.5 seconds to go.
"The technical helped us out a lot," said Davis, who finished with a game-high 28 points. "We were hurting ourselves on the free throw line and they really scared us a little."
The Yellow Jackets didn't scare the Blue Devils at all. By the time Georgia Tech started hitting its shots, deep in the second half, Duke had pushed what had been an 18-point halftime lead to 25 on three occasions. Georgia Tech never got within 12.
The Blue Devils, who shot a season-low 43 percent in Friday's semifinal victory over Maryland, shot nearly 60 percent for the game. Brian Davis and Bobby Hurley each had 17 points for Duke, which put on its most impressive performance since before Hurley and Grant Hill were sidelined last month with injuries.
"We're having fun playing every game," said Hurley, who along with his teammates will try to make up for last year's 22-point loss to the Tar Heels in the ACC championship game. "We're going out and playing hard and having fun."
Said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins: "I'm disappointed because we didn't give them a better game. I knew the key to this game would be that first 10 minutes, if we could hang in there with them, but their defense just took us out of our offense."
Florida State took itself out of yesterday's second semifinal game with poor shot selection until the waning moments. Instead of challenging the Tar Heels inside, the Seminoles fired away -- and flailed away -- from the outside, finishing nine of 29 from three-point range.
"They did a great job in playing our three-point shooters," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy. "We couldn't nail a shot at times. We had problems finding the mark."
Said former Dunbar star Sam Cassell, who shot four of 15 overall (three of 10 on three-pointers): "A couple of times, I shot it behind the green [NBA] line when I thought I was behind the white. Our shots weren't falling, but give Coach Smith credit. They came in with a great plan."