Rival Tar Heels gain ACC date with crazy 8 seed Wolfpack Balanced Carolina dunks one-dimensional Deacons, 86-73, to join upstarts

March 09, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- North Carolina State has made history at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, becoming the first No. 8 seed to reach the final in the 44 years since this legendary league began. Today, a team whose collective heart is as big as its lineup is small, has an opportunity to make something else.

The NCAA tournament.

However daunting the odds will be playing against third-seeded, fifth-ranked North Carolina, the Wolfpack will have the crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum and a national television audience in its corner. But the Tar Heels might just be too strong, too big and, most importantly, too hot for N.C. State to pull off one more miraculous victory.

North Carolina was almost frightening in its offensive efficiency in the second half of its 86-73 semifinal win yesterday over second-seeded, eighth-ranked Wake Forest. The Tar Heels made 17 of 25 field-goal attempts, including four of six three-pointers. And they made 13 of 15 free throws to pull away from the one-dimensional Demon Deacons.

"Who did we lose to today?" said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose slumping team lost whatever slim chance it had left of regaining a No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA tournament, as well as a chance to become only the third team to win three straight ACC tournament titles. "We probably lost to the team that is playing maybe the best basketball in the country right now -- the team that is playing closest to its potential. But you have to put an asterisk on it because I haven't seen everybody. I haven't seen N.C. State."

In winning its 11th straight game, North Carolina (23-6) showed great balance. The Tar Heels had six players in double figures, getting 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting from junior guard Shammond Williams and 17 from senior center Serge Zwikker, who finished the game with a three-pointer. Freshman point guard Ed Cota, perhaps the player singularly responsible for North Carolina's late-season run, added 13 points and seven assists.

In losing for the fifth time in its past nine games, Wake Forest (23-6) again showed why it has struggled recently. The Demon Deacons got 33 points on 14-for-21 shooting from All-America center Tim Duncan and 20 points from junior guard Tony Rutland, but junior guard Jerry Braswell and senior forward Ricky Peral have become non-factors. The way you beat Wake Forest is to force someone other than Duncan to score.

"We knew Duncan was going to get his [points], so we tried to stop the other guys," Zwikker said.

The Tar Heels did it a bit uncharacteristically. With the game tied at 35 at halftime, they went to a zone early in the second half and limited Duncan to four points in the final 13 minutes. They collapsed around the 6-foot-10 center and gave Wake Forest perimeter shots. The Deacons made six of 18 three-pointers in the half (10 of 29 for the game) and only Duncan kept them close, if not quite threatening.

With North Carolina leading 65-59 after a drive by Duncan, sophomore forward Antawn Jamison (13 points) turned a partially blocked air ball by Zwikker into a three-point play. After Duncan missed the front end of a one-and-one with five minutes remaining, Cota hit a three just before the 35-second clock expired. The Demon Deacons did not get within nine thereafter.

"I think they played a great game," said Duncan, who also had 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. "They played great as a team."

That is what makes today's seemingly one-sided final so intriguing. Both teams appear to be peaking at the same time after overcoming horrific starts in the ACC. The Tar Heels were 0-3 for the first time in school history and the Wolfpack lost its first eight ACC games. But their games against each other this season were tight and, though North Carolina won both, played at N.C. State's pace.

In those games, the Tar Heels won the first after trailing by nine with 2: 15 to play, and they won the second when Cota converted a turnover in the waning seconds into a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Yesterday's 65-58 victory over Maryland -- a game in which the Wolfpack (16-13) got stronger in a 45-point second half -- was its third in a span of 42 hours.

It was also their fourth against a nationally ranked team this season, their third in the past two weeks. The concern the Tar Heels have for N.C. State is legitimate, and totally justified considering the way the first two games went.

It brings them into today's game that they hope will be reminiscent of the 1987 ACC tournament final in Landover, when then-sixth-seeded N.C. State, needing to win to guarantee a spot in the 64-team NCAA tournament field, upset then-top-seeded, top-ranked North Carolina. This marks the first time in the tournament history that an eighth seed has made the final. With the addition of the play-in game in 1992, no team has ever won four games to win the tournament.

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