Calls leave Jackets buzzing as Heels trip, skip to final

Forte, Peppers bailed out in last minute of Carolina's 70-63 victory

College Basketball

March 11, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - There was no need to look at the scoreboard inside the Georgia Dome to see which team won yesterday's first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal. All one had to do was look at the faces of the two first-year coaches, Matt Doherty of North Carolina and Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech.

Doherty was smiling, knowing that his top-seeded Tar Heels had been a bit fortunate to survive the pesky, fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets with a couple of questionable decisions by the officials in the final minute of North Carolina's 70-63 victory.

Hewitt was seething, knowing that he couldn't say anything about the officiating.

"You guys saw the game, you've got to make your own decisions about the calls in the last minute," Hewitt said at a post-game news conference.

First there was the foul called against Georgia Tech guard T. J. Vines with 33.6 seconds remaining and the Tar Heels ahead 64-63. Vines was called for a pushing foul as North Carolina's Joseph Forte stumbled, losing control of the ball. Replays showed that the sophomore All-American tripped over his own feet.

"That's how it goes sometimes. Great players get those kind of calls, and he's a great player," Vines said of Forte, who made both free throws and would finish with a game-high 27 points.

So do not-so-great players. Actually, it was a traveling call that wasn't made against reserve Tar Heels forward Julius Peppers with 14 seconds left that sealed North Carolina's victory. It came after reserve guard Brian Morrison broke the press and fired a 50-foot pass to Peppers, who took two steps and dunked.

The only thing Peppers, one of the nation's leading defensive ends for the North Carolina football team, forgot to do was take a dribble.

"I really didn't think about it until I came to the bench and the guys said I traveled," Peppers said of his only two points in the game. "I think I did take an extra step."

Joked Doherty: "I told Julius he has to dribble the ball in this sport."

Truth is, the Yellow Jackets were just as much as fault for their demise. After charging back from some horrendous shooting (14 of their first 48 at one point) and a 43-30 deficit to tie the game at 53 on a three-point play by Vines with a little over eight minutes left, Georgia Tech had its chances.

After Forte made those two free throws for a 66-63 lead, the Tar Heels called timeout to set their defense. On the ensuing possession, Yellow Jackets point guard Tony Akins tried to set up shooting guard Sean Fein for a three-pointer, but Fein cut toward the baseline and the ball ended up in his coach's hands.

"I think we had some opportunities taken away from us, but we also made some mistakes and had some miscommunication out there," said Akins. "But give North Carolina credit. They took advantage of the mistakes we made."

The victory put North Carolina (25-5) into today's championship game against Duke, which later beat Maryland, 84-82. It marks the 10th time in the tournament's history that the league's pre-eminent programs will play for the title.

Given what happened to other top contenders in conference tournaments, yesterday's wins likely secured No. 1 seeds for both the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils. And given what happened during the regular season between these long-standing rivals, today's game should be intense though little is at stake.

It seemed for a while in the first semifinal that the Tar Heels might not get that far. North Carolina fell behind early, 18-10, and after stretching a 29-25 halftime lead to 13 with a little more than 16 minutes remaining, seemed to get careless.

"When you're attacking like we were, sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad things happen," said junior point guard Ronald Curry.

Mostly it was the long-range shooting of Fein (18 points) and Akins (17 points) that kept the Yellow Jackets in the game. Certainly it wasn't first-team All-ACC center Alvin Jones, who missed 13 of 16 shots, all of them within a couple of feet of the basket.

Asked what he would have liked Jones to do, Hewitt said, "I'd like him to score. He took good shots."

While Jones will likely have to improve his shooting percentage should the 17-12 Yellow Jackets make the NCAA tournament, so will Forte. Forte has been in a shooting slump the past three weeks and yesterday's 10-for-25 performance was added to the list.

"I think the thing Coach Doherty stressed to me the most was to go out hard," said Forte, who also played in foul trouble after picking up his third personal with a little more than a minute left in the first half. "As long as you play hard you'll come out ahead."

Said Doherty: "The ball just wasn't dropping. As much as the ball was dropping yesterday [against Clemson], it wasn't dropping today. These guys came up big for us in the end, Joe with his foul shots and Brendan [Haywood] with his defense."

So did the officials, by making one call they shouldn't have and not making another that seemed even obvious to the Tar Heels.

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