Three days into the ACC Tournament here at Greensboro, the stakes suddenly seemed higher. Perhaps that’s because the potent men’s programs from North Carolina — Duke, North Carolina, and N.C. State — were slated for competition today.
The Tar Heels were first up, the mid-afternoon crowd awash with Carolina blue. The fans were increasingly desperate to explode, but Pittsburgh maintained a comfortable advantage for most of the game.
One big problem for the Heels: Marcus Paige, their do-everything leader and sharpshooter extraordinaire, played with tape on his left (shooting) hand and thumb. The Heels missed their first nine 3-pointers, with Paige misfiring on six. For the game they were 4-16 from the bonusphere.
At the other end UNC couldn’t keep the Panthers’ Talib Zanna off the offensive boards. The senior finished 21 rebounds and 19 points. Paige had 27 points before fouling out.
As playing time dwindled and the situation grew increasingly desperate, Carolina began trapping and pressing in the backcourt when Pitt attempted to inbound the ball. The strategy worked wonderfully. Coupled with execrable free throw shooting by the Panthers (14-32 in the second half), UNC erased most of the 15-point deficit it faced with 3:21 to go.
In the end, though, the hill was too steep to climb, and Pitt won 80-75.
UNC’s elimination left the tournament halfway to a major break with recent tradition. The last season neither North Carolina nor Duke reached the title contest was 1996, when most current players were too young to attend school.
Amazingly, the first and only time in the tournament’s history that no North Carolina team played for the championship was 1990, when Georgia Tech beat Virginia.
Pitt of course joined the league this season, fleeing the Big East. Over the past decade the ACC has taken in six schools from the Big East, with Louisville still to come next season. There’s precedent for a Big East newcomer zooming to the finals of the ACC Tournament — Boston College did it in 2006, losing to Duke.
The Panthers next face Virginia, the top seed, in Saturday’s first semifinal. The Cavaliers, who joined the league several months into its inaugural season in 1953-54, have a single championship to their credit. They won in 1976.
Syracuse, the second seed and another Big East refugee, is in a different bracket from Pitt and will play seven-seed N.C. State this evening. Then Duke takes on Clemson.
So there’s a real and growing chance the Big East teams could be the last ones standing in the championship competition. What a blow that would be to the pride of the ACC’s old guard.
Further disturbing for ACC traditionalists, a report surfaced today that the league is in final negotiations to move the tournament to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for two years, the move to take place as early as 2017.