With ACC in D.C., beware of underdog

History: The few times the tourney has escaped Carolina for the Washington area, amazing upsets have followed. Just ask Virginia and N.C. State.

March 08, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament has rarely ventured outside the state of North Carolina in its 51 years, but in returning to the Washington area this week for the first time since 1987, teams that finished in the bottom half of the league standings are hoping for history to repeat itself.

In its three visits to the Capital Centre in Landover, the ACC tournament produced two sizable upsets: Virginia's remarkable run over three nationally ranked teams in 1976 and North Carolina State's thrilling ride in the same building 11 years later.

Led by Wally Walker, the ACC tournament championship for the Cavaliers was the first and only in school history, the first by a team seeded sixth in the then-seven-team ACC, and came at the first ACC tournament played outside Tobacco Road.

The championship for the Wolfpack, seeded sixth of eight teams, occurred at perhaps the most exciting ACC tournament ever played. N.C. State won its quarterfinal in overtime, its semifinal in double overtime and the championship game by a single point on a pair of free throws in the waning seconds.

Will it happen again when the tournament is played this week at MCI Center?

Walker will be there watching as one of the ACC's honored legends, and is certain to be reminded of what happened more than a quarter of a century ago.

"The memories are all wonderful," Walker, 50, said last week from Seattle, where he is president and chief executive officer of the NBA's SuperSonics. "There's a feeling, `Hey, we did something.'"

What the Cavaliers did under second-year coach Terry Holland was knock off three ranked teams in succession: No. 17 N.C. State, No. 9 Maryland and No. 4 North Carolina.

"We were young, but we really played well in the last month of the season," recalled Walker. "We lost some close games to the top ACC teams, but we really felt we had come a long way. We were as confident as a 4-8 team [in the ACC] could be."

Listening to Lefty

That confidence grew during a comical scene in the team's dressing room at halftime of the game against the Terrapins.

"Our locker room was contiguous with theirs, we shared a wall," said Walker. "Terry Holland was talking to us, and he was very close with Lefty Driesell. Terry held up his hand and had all of us be quiet and listen to Lefty screaming at the Maryland guys. We felt as if we had them where we wanted them."

Walker also can recall being in his hotel room with roommate Billy Langloh later that night, thinking about playing the Tar Heels the next afternoon.

"They had like seven guys who played in the NBA, six of them were first-round picks," said Walker, who was the fifth pick in the 1976 draft for the Portland Trail Blazers. "We played them two pretty good games, including one they won at the buzzer in Chapel Hill a couple of weeks before. There was no reason for us to be confident, but we still were."

Admittedly, there might have been less pressure on the Cavaliers as there was on teams such as Maryland and N.C. State, because they were still fighting for a chance to go to the NCAA tournament now that the field had been expanded to include more than a league's champion.

"Nobody knew for sure that you would get a bid if you didn't win it," said Holland, now the athletic director at East Carolina. "It was literally a bare-knuckles fistfight for three days because the teams wanted to win that badly."

As the final seconds ticked down against North Carolina, the magnitude of what the Cavaliers had accomplished was evident.

"I can remember our fans circling the arena and inching closer to the court," said Walker. "We were hitting some clinching free throws and looking around that court, seeing a bunch of friends and friendly faces in blue and orange is something I'll never forget."

Walker would go on to win two NBA championships, but what happened in Landover nearly 30 years ago remains the most significant accomplishment of his career.

"It was so emotional for those who had been there for any period of time," said Walker. "It was the first revenue-sport championship for the University of Virginia, to be a part of that for the fans who had stuck with us through thick and thin, and most of the time it was thin. It was a real thrill."

Overtime extravaganza

Nearly the entire 1987 tournament was a thrill for those who witnessed it: Of the seven games, three went into overtime and two others were decided by a point, including N.C. State's 68-67 win over archrival and top-seeded North Carolina in the championship game.

The Tar Heels had been heavily favored, having gone undefeated in the league's regular season. The Wolfpack had come into the ACC tournament with a 17-14 record (6-8 in the ACC) and needed to win the championship to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

"This was a team that had different expectations from Jimmy's standpoint, because it really wasn't a defined basketball team," recalled Dick Stewart, then one of Jim Valvano's assistant coaches and now an assistant athletic director at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. "Every game was an adventure."

Chucky Brown, now an assistant coach for the Roanoke Dazzle of the National Basketball Development League was a sophomore that year who had started to show promise during the course of the season. He attributes his team's championship to the man they called Coach V.

"He was the best motivator I've ever been around," Brown said of the late Valvano, who under similar circumstances had led the Wolfpack to the 1983 national championship. "He always had the right thing to say, always pushed the right buttons. I don't know how he did it, but he did it."

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