DeCock

Wolfpack could have the most on the line

Staff WriterMarch 11, 2012 

— So where's the real drama today? Here in Atlanta, where the ACC title will be decided between North Carolina and a team that isn't Duke? Or in a hotel conference room in Indianapolis, where N.C. State's season hangs by a very thin thread?

In the hours after the first issue is decided between North Carolina and Florida State, the NCAA selection committee will deliver its verdict on the second. Both figure to be as compelling as Saturday's games.

The Tar Heels deprived the Wolfpack their opportunity to make the question moot with a 69-67 win, while the Seminoles got in the way of a third UNC-Duke matchup by dispatching the Blue Devils 62-59 - and offering North Carolina a somewhat unexpected opportunity to respond to a 33-point face-slapping in Tallahassee in January.

"We know they're going to be fired up," Florida State guard Michael Snaer said. "The question now is, is it validation or vengeance?"

The Seminoles moved on when Seth Curry's last-second 35-footer went in and out to deny Duke, but it's hard to imagine a more painful way for the Wolfpack to lose with so much on the line, from the controversial officiating to the botched 5-foot pass between Lorenzo Brown and Alex Johnson with the score tied in the final minute.

Afterward, Brown sat in his locker, surprisingly upbeat but unable to keep a note of desperation out of his voice when asked about the Wolfpack's NCAA fate: "We want to get there so bad."

Almost lost in the shuffle was the fact that North Carolina won a close game - against a desperate opponent with far more on the line - without N.C. State nemesis John Henson, who nursed his injured wrist on the bench while his teammates failed to block a single shot.

If the Tar Heels could have used Henson against C.J. Leslie, who scored 22 points in 29 minutes, there's no question they need him against the Seminoles, who have as many useful big men as any team in the ACC. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Henson would play if it were the Final Four, but it's not.

It's the ACC tournament, and when N.C State and North Carolina really got going, it finally felt like it for the first time in three days.

The next three ACC tournaments are in Greensboro, and while it's hard to imagine the atmosphere being any better in that building than it was here Saturday, it's still time to abandon Atlanta. It hosted some of the great tournaments of the past at the old Omni, and the 2001 edition at the Georgia Dome set attendance records that still haven't been broken.

For whatever reason - expansion, the economy, Georgia Tech's basketball struggles - it hasn't worked since. The ACC showed incredible foresight moving this year's tournament to Philips Arena from the dome, where it was held in 2009, but even in the smaller building, the first two days were listless. That changed Saturday.

The Duke fans got there early to root against North Carolina, and the UNC fans stayed late to root against Duke. The N.C. State fans stayed, too, possibly too shocked at what they had just seen to move from their seats. They may have more on the line today than either team in the championship game.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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