RALEIGH — So this is what the ACC is leaving behind: A frenzied arena, two teams clearly and visibly dedicated to pounding the snot out of each other, basketball played at an elite pace.
No one begrudges the expansion the ACC had to undertake just to survive in the ridiculous world of college athletics. But is it really necessary to give this up? N.C. State and North Carolina played the kind of basketball game that made the ACC great, terrific basketball and terrific theater that just begs for a third meeting in Atlanta.
OK, enough about the future. Let us, for one Tuesday night in an overheated building not only did N.C. State bring the old noise meter over from Reynolds Coliseum, the thermostat might have come along as well savor and enjoy the kind of game that makes basketball in this area what it is, what it always has been and what it always should be.
C.J. Leslie played what might have been the game of his career. Kendall Marshall, too, from a scoring perspective. And the atmosphere was nothing short of electric, thanks to the events on this same floor three days earlier come for the near-riot, stay for the basketball game even as the Tar Heels won their 12th straight against the Wolfpack, 86-74.
With N.C. State fans at a rolling boil over the injustice meted out by referee Karl Hess on Saturday, when he ejected Wolfpack legends Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani from the arena with little apparent justification, N.C. State engaged in a little old-fashioned populist pandering, creating an instant award out of thin air to honor the 1988-89 team, which just happened to include Gugliotta and Corchiani.
It all made for delectable drama before the game even started, and the on-court proceedings delivered. N.C. State tied the score at 30 and maintained a single-digit deficit through much of the night, with the Tar Heels unable to keep the Wolfpack at anything more than arms length until midway through the second half. And even then, N.C. State kept chipping away.
Leslie was offensively dominant early, until fatigue and foul trouble wore him down, but he still finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds and fans chanting his name when he finally fouled out. Marshall set a career-high with three 3-pointers before halftime, then set a career-high for points with 20. Not to mention the usual 13 assists and zero turnovers, the first time he has done that as a starter.
Those were the kind of individual performances that honored the context and circumstances of the game.
In the ACCs new 14-team, 18-game schedule, these teams will meet home and away only once every three years. It is somewhere between a shame and a travesty, and the ACC may yet find itself paying the price for losing touch with its core constituency. Did the first and only meeting this season of Duke and N.C. State not cry out for a rematch before the tournament?)
For one night, though, everything fell into place. N.C. State didnt deliver the win its fans so desperately wanted, and the Wolfpack faces an increasingly steep path toward the NCAA tournament after missing three chances to get a marquee win, but the Wolfpack gave it everything it had against North Carolina. The Tar Heels did the same, playing with the kind of fire you only get from this kind of game.
It was basketball in the Triangle at its best, between two teams down the road from each other, worth enjoying whatever may happen down the road.
DeCock: twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947