You can take the ACC tournament out of North Carolina, play it on Georgetown’s home court, still not nearly as far away from its roots at Reynolds Coliseum as Brooklyn will be, but there’s still nothing like a grudge match between a couple of ancient ACC rivals to bring it to life.
When you put Duke and N.C. State on the court, there’s a good chance you might end up back in Greensboro, spiritually speaking – albeit with better Italian food, not that Jim Boeheim stuck around long enough to enjoy it. Again.
With 18 ties and 21 lead changes, with big shot after big shot, with a finish that went to the final second before Duke secured a 92-89 win, this game had everything except higher stakes. The best game of the ACC tournament may well have come and gone long before the weekend, although there’s still plenty of time to top it.
Dan Jenkins has always said the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday. The ACC tournament didn’t used to start until there was an upset in the quarterfinals (and there almost always was), in days of old on Friday, now Thursday. This tournament, despite its location and the odds stacked against it, got started uncommonly early Wednesday, in front of a surprisingly large and engaged crowd for a midweek matinee.
First, Syracuse lost to Pittsburgh in the Big East Heritage Classic when Trevor Cooney’s last-second 3-pointer went awry, setting the stage for a renewal of ancient ACC rivals that far exceeded expectations for both quality and drama, the highest-scoring tournament game in 26 years.
“They made some big ones, tough ones,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Got to give them credit. But so did we. So did we.”
And there could be more of this tomorrow when Duke faces Notre Dame, the ACC’s best offensive team, in the quarterfinals. Their first meeting, an Irish win in Durham, produced a total of 186 points.
The 103 points Duke and N.C. State scored in the first half Wednesday were the most at halftime of an ACC tournament game since N.C. State and Maryland combined for 105 in the first half of that 1974 title game.
Duke shot 63 percent, N.C. State 61 percent. Brandon Ingram had 19 points ... at halftime. They combined for eight double-figure scorers, 21 3-pointers and a mere 10 turnovers, bouncing the lead back and forth like a ping-pong ball. And just when Duke looked to have pulled away late, a Grayson Allen flagrant foul for pulling down Cat Barber helped vault N.C. State back into the game.
The Wolfpack had two shots at it in the final 10 seconds. A set play for Maverick Rowan – who among his three 3-pointers made an improbable double-clutch bank shot – fell apart and Barber turned the ball over under the basket. Then Luke Kennard missed the front end of a one-and-the-bonus with 1.4 seconds to go, giving N.C. State new life. Barber’s heave from way outside hit the side of the backboard.
“I made it a little interesting at the end,” Kennard said. “That’s my first ACC tournament experience. It was something special.”
If a bad basketball game is a street fight, down and dirty and ugly, this was like street racing, hell bent for the finish line without concern for safety or sanity, and just as entertaining.
Blood was spilled. Marshall Plumlee’s nose was smashed, by teammate Matt Jones’ elbow. After an impromptu septum realignment, he finished the game. Barber had elbow issues of his own after a tumble to the floor, his right arm badly swollen afterward, but scored a game-high 29 anyway.
And still it came down to one final, desperation shot. Most nights, that’s a formality. On this afternoon, it really felt like anything could happen. To that point, it had.
There’s a lot of basketball still to play. This game set the bar pretty high, pretty early.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock