Apparently, they’ll play four games Thursday. That’s what the schedule says. That’s what the bracket dictates. That’s how the ACC tournament works. Standards must be upheld.
Two immediately capture the imagination, though, and that’s OK. With apologies to Virginia and Notre Dame, both of which will play their first game of the tournament, it’s hard not to look past the third installment of North Carolina and Louisville in the afternoon session and the rematch of N.C. State and Duke in the evening.
Actually, it’s impossible. This is why they play the thing, to renew old grudges and settle old scores. There will be plenty of that Thursday.
There were no guarantees Wednesday would play out this way, but North Carolina took care of business against Boston College with relative ease, 81-63, even without Kennedy Meeks. N.C. State faced a tougher task against the relentless grind of Pittsburgh, riding a career game from Cat Barber to an 81-70 win.
In the regular season, the Tar Heels and Cardinals each won at home, both games coming down to the final possession of regulation. Marcus Paige won the first for North Carolina, Louisville came from behind to win the second in overtime.
“Not only is it a chance to go on to the semifinal, but when you lose the way we did at Louisville, and that was the last one, that resonates for me more,” Paige said.
The Blue Devils are looking for revenge as well, which isn’t often the case but will be against the Wolfpack.
With Duke looming, Pittsburgh was exactly the kind of game the Wolfpack is prone to losing while focusing on the bigger picture. That’s what happened against Boston College, the only blemish on N.C. State’s record in the past seven games, and the Panthers certainly offered that kind of look-past-me potential.
No worries there, though: The way Barber is playing right now, slashing to the rim and gunning 3-pointers, the Wolfpack has plenty of margin for error, easily absorbing a four-point night from Ralston Turner, who went 0-for-5 from long range.
“It’s not something we’ve talked about,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “It’s not something that, ‘Hey, if we beat Pitt we would get to play Duke.’ We’ve never mentioned it one time. I’m not sure (the players) have. They’ve handled it the right way.”
They can mention it now. N.C. State caught Duke in the middle of the Blue Devils’ January swoon, before Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow turned it back on. Duke will be a tougher opponent this time around. But so will N.C. State as Barber continues to take his game to new heights.
Barber had a career-high 34 points and Trevor Lacey 21, and it came so easily to them that Lacey actually slapped the floor in dismay after missing a 3-pointer set up by a Barber bounce pass from all the way under the basket, after Barber went spinning past three Pittsburgh defenders.
“I’ve never seen a play like that before, or been a part of one of those plays,” Lacey said. “The way this game was going for him, that’s a play that would have been with him for a lifetime. If I would have made that shot, that would have been one of the plays for him for the rest of his life.”
Barber had no shortage of happy memories, though. Just about everything else went right for that duo in what is shaping up to be a tournament of historic scoring potential.
The ACC record for 30-point games in a tournament is six, in 1955 and 1995 – in the latter, Randolph Childress accounted for three of them. Barber became the third 30-point scorer of this year’s tournament, joining Virginia Tech’s Jalen Hudson and Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
It’s hard to compare a 13-game tournament with the tourneys that lasted seven or eight games, but three in the first five games isn’t a bad start.
The displays of individual prowess added some sizzle to the opening days of the tournament. Thursday’s big matchups will have plenty on their own.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947