If rebounds are a measure of a basketball team's desire, the flailing arms of Georgia Tech's redheaded giant under the basket said everything you needed to know about whether top-seeded North Carolina or Tech's fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets wanted yesterday's ACC tournament semifinal more.
And if scrappy play is a window on heart, you only needed to watch Tech's Will Bynum claw for loose balls and loft shot after shot in defiance of the towering defenders swarming around him to know whose passion for the game ran deeper.
Jeremis Smith and Jarrett Jack (6 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) celebrate in front of UNC's Rashad McCants (17 points).
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Bynum scored a career-high 35 points, and Luke Schenscher, the Jackets' gangly 7-foot-1 center, won the battle of big men to knock North Carolina out of the ACC tournament, 78-75, and send the nation's second-ranked team back to Chapel Hill for a heavy dose of soul-searching on the eve of the NCAA tournament.
In toppling the heavily favored Heels, the Yellow Jackets played their way into today's championship game, where they'll face Duke, and improved their lot in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee.
Georgia Tech's victory at MCI Center before the disbelieving eyes of a partisan Carolina crowd was neither freakish nor fluky. Tech played physical ball from the tip-off, particularly on defense, and ended up holding the nation's top-scoring team (89.3 points per game) to its worst shooting percentage of the season (36.1). Tech outrebounded the Heels 47-40 and scored 25 second-chance points to North Carolina's 14 -- both indisputable measures of desire and heart.
While the Jackets played with the intensity of the squad that stormed its way to last season's NCAA final, the Tar Heels played as if they had the luxury of dithering around until the final minutes, when all the calls and all the shots would suddenly start going their way. That's how it had worked in the previous day's quarterfinal against Clemson. And that's precisely the thinking that proved their undoing.
"I think we got fat and happy," conceded North Carolina junior center Sean May, who finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. "The coaches had us prepared to play; it was the players who just didn't get the job done."
That said, North Carolina came within a basket of sending the game into overtime.
Trailing 76-7with 18 seconds left, Rashad McCants was fouled on a three-point play but made only the first of three free throws. McCants atoned by swishing a three-pointer with 11 seconds left to pull North Carolina (27-4) within 76-75.
A foul sent Bynum to the line, where he nailed his 34th and 35th points to make it a three-point game with nine seconds remaining.
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams drew up one last play for McCants, who got an open look at the basket and tossed up a shot that rimmed out, ensuring Georgia Tech's place in the final.
"We dug ourselves into a big hole and at the end we were hoping a shot would get us into overtime," Williams said. "It was a disappointing day for us. And to be honest, I am disappointed with how we played" both Friday and yesterday.
Georgia Tech (19-10) was probably assured of an NCAA tournament berth regardless of the outcome against North Carolina. But its impressive defensive effort, as well as the cagey, selfless play of guard Jarrett Jack and the sweet shooting touch of Bynum, rekindled memories of the magic that marked the school's 2003-04 squad. With four of last season's starters finally healthy and back in the lineup, Tech is playing its best ball of the year. And Coach Paul Hewitt, who has sparred with the team's skeptics throughout this up-and-down season, took obvious pleasure in his players' achievement.
Tech was in control of the game, lapsing only during a six-minute span at the start of the second half in which May scored 14 points while Schenscher's focus strayed. Hewitt sat Schenscher down a few minutes to think about his shortcomings, and the Australian reentered more determined to push May away from the basket.
Said Hewitt: "This statement is not a statement of disrespect to North Carolina. They are great and could very well win the national championship. But this was no upset out here today. Our team -- being a team that has accomplished an awful lot at big moments -- to be written off was kind of amusing to me."