N.C. State plants top-seeded Wake

Wolfpack is in ACC final with an 87-83 upset

Duke handles N. Carolina, 75-63

College Basketball

March 16, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - After North Carolina State advanced yesterday to the championship game in the 50th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, there was a buzz throughout the Greensboro Coliseum.

It was brought about by the fourth-seeded Wolfpack beating top-seeded Wake Forest, 87-83, in the first semifinal game and the possibility that a victory by North Carolina over Duke would essentially create a play-in game today for the NCAA tournament.

The Blue Devils all but silenced the buzz, as well as the seventh-seeded Tar Heels.

With a scorching performance in the first half, third-seeded Duke built a 21-point halftime lead and cruised to a 75-63 victory. The Blue Devils will try to extend their own record by winning a fifth straight ACC tournament championship here this afternoon.

It seems obvious that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who becomes the first coach in ACC history to lead his team to six straight tournament finals, places more importance on the conference tournament than many of his counterparts around the country.

"It's good to win in your own neighborhood," said Krzyzewski. "If you're fortunate to win nationally, that's also a plus. I like my neighborhood. I think it's the best neighborhood in the United States. If you have a chance to win a championship in this neighborhood, you're an elite program."

Duke's victory not only served to crush North Carolina's hopes after the Tar Heels' upset of second-seeded Maryland on Friday, but it also solidified N.C. State's position as the ACC's fourth team in the NCAA tournament.

"We've really tried not to look in the mirror, and we've tried not to look ahead," said N.C. State coach Herb Sendek. "Obviously, anything we've done in this tournament has only helped our chances."

The Wolfpack appeared to be playing its way out of consideration in the first half, falling behind by as many as eight points. Cutting the deficit to 37-33 by halftime, N.C. State (18-11) went on a 19-4 run to start the second half.

The Wolfpack hit its first four shots after halftime, including three three-pointers, and made 15 of 24 second-half shots overall. As importantly, N.C. State also made 29 of 35 free throws, with many coming down the stretch after Wake Forest cut a 13-point deficit to six in the final minute.

Sophomore forward Julius Hodge finished with a career-high 31 points, including 11 of 12 free throws, and badly outplayed Wake Forest star Josh Howard. Despite typical numbers - 21 points and 12 rebounds - Howard missed 15 of 21 shots from the field.

"Josh Howard is a great player and very good on the boards; we were sending two guys at him and he was still getting offensive rebounds," said Hodge. "It is really a team game, and I didn't stop him by myself."

While there wasn't nearly as much riding on the outcome for Wake Forest (24-5) as for N.C. State, the defeat likely cost the Demon Deacons whatever chance they still had at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, whose team had beaten the Wolfpack in both regular-season meetings, didn't change his opinion of N.C. State based on yesterday's defeat.

"As I said last week, they are an NCAA tournament team and we wish them nothing but the best in the national tournament," said Prosser.

Sendek didn't buy into the theory that N.C. State, like a lot of other "bubble" teams around the country, came into its conference tournament with a more determined mind-set than those basically assured of an at-large bid.

"I'm sure that varies from team to team," he said. "We try to approach every game with a sense of urgency. I go back to our season, especially the last several weeks, and I can't recall any game when we didn't approach it with a sense of urgency or purpose."

That purpose might change today. With the confidence of knowing that a bid to the NCAA tournament is all but assured, the Wolfpack can concentrate on stopping Duke's drive for five. N.C. State was in the same position last year, and lost. This marks the third time in six years that Sendek's team reached the final.

Sendek was asked whether this team might be able to do what the other two couldn't - win N.C. State's first ACC tournament championship since 1987 in Landover.

"There's a lot of factors, and we won't know the conclusion until tomorrow," said Sendek. "This is a special team, it's a great group of guys. They've just been as gritty and crusty and resilient as a team in college basketball can be this year. Our guys have always managed to get back up."

North Carolina coach Matt Doherty was hoping for the same thing from his undermanned Tar Heels. Despite the return of freshman center Sean May, who had missed 10 weeks with a fractured left foot, North Carolina (17-15) offered little of what it showed against the Terps on Friday night.

May scored the first two times he touched the ball to provide a momentary lift, but it was lost quickly amid a flurry of rebound dunks and three-point shots by the Blue Devils. It took Duke (23-6) less than 10 minutes to build a double-digit lead, which grew to as many 24 early in the second half.

For the second straight game, Daniel Ewing led Duke. The guard scored 19 points, including 13 in the first half, on 7-for-12 shooting. The Blue Devils shot 20 of 33 in the first half, including 8-for-11 on three-pointers.

"Their first half, they shot the ball extremely well," said Doherty. "Some of that was our poor defense, but they're great shooters. When they shoot the ball like that, they're tough to beat."

Especially in this neighborhood, which today is without much of a buzz.

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