The Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament produced a classic game today, 24 hours sooner than expected. It also produced a matchup for Sunday's final that was unexpected: Virginia-North Carolina State.
The surprise is the presence of the Wolfpack in place of fifth-ranked North Carolina. State messed up the anticipated Game of the Century III on Sunday (1 p.m., WJLA-TV-7) with a 91-84 overtime upset of the Tar Heels, winning after trailing by six in the extra period.
State (19-10) probably earned an NCAA tournament bid with the victory. In the ACC final, it will play second-ranked Virginia, which rolled past tired and undermanned Georgia Tech, 96-67, getting 18 points from Othell Wilson, 17 from Rick Carlisle and 16 from Ralph Sampson. Freshman Mark Price scored 33 points for the Yellow Jackets.
The Cavaliers did lose starting forward Tim Mullen, who suffered strained ligaments in his right knee late in the first half. He will be out for the season and will be replaced by Jim Miller or Ricky Stokes.
Virginia also had a brief scare when Sampson was hit on the jaw and left the game briefly. He was taken to a hospital for precautionary X-rays after the game but trainers were confident there was no fracture. Sampson played most of the second half and did not appear to be in pain.
Otherwise, Virginia appears to be blessed this weekend. First, on Friday Tech (13-15) upset Maryland, a team the Cavaliers do not like to play. This afternoon, State did the same thing to Carolina (26-7), which defeated Virginia twice this season.
Like Friday, when they routed Duke, the Cavaliers needed about 15 minutes to get going against Tech, clearly drained after its opening-round upset of Maryland. After leading, 26-24, with seven minutes left, Virginia (27-3) rolled to a 50-34 halftime lead and cruised from there.
"We're playing very good basketball right now," said Virginia Coach Terry Holland. "We aren't playing perfect basketball, but I'm not sure we can ask much more from them than we're getting right now."
State-Carolina could not have been more different. These teams would play taut, intense basketball against each other in July and this game had both quality and tension the entire 45 minutes.
"It was a great game to watch," said a forlorn Carolina Coach Dean Smith, "if you weren't rooting for anyone."
The heroes for State were the three Washington-area seniors: Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe. Bailey was a force inside with 17 points and 14 rebounds. He got help from Lorenzo Charles, who scored 16 points.
Whittenburg, who missed six weeks with a broken foot, was missing in action during the regulation. He made only two of 11 from the field, but was heroic in the overtime with 11 points in the clutch.
But, as was the case Friday against Wake Forest, the man of the hour was Lowe. He was magnificent in the first half, making three-pointers early, driving the lane late for 19 points as State led, 41-39, at the half.
During those first 20 minutes, Carolina's two all-Americas, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, weren't even all-city. Perkins made three of 11 shots, Jordan one of five. Perkins, who sat out the opening round with a sprained toe, showed no ill effects in his movement but his shots would not drop.
Smith had Jordan guard Lowe in the second half, taking him off the ice-cold Whittenburg, and Jordan slowed Lowe a little. But State continued to get the ball inside to Bailey and McQueen and, even though Perkins and Jordan finally warmed up, the Wolfpack led most of the way.
State, which will play in its first final since 1975, never was rattled, even when Perkins, who had 24 points, put the Tar Heels ahead, 63-61, with 8:46 to go after N.C. State had led by eight.
"We thought coming in we would play well and we did," said N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano. "But for a while, I really think we all thought we had lost."
It was that kind of emotional roller coaster the last 10 minutes. State had taken the lead at 65-64 on two free throws by Charles and extended it to 67-64 on a bank shot by Bailey.
When Jordan missed at the other end, Valvano ordered his spread offense and Jordan promptly committed his fifth foul, a reach on Terry Gannon with 3:42 left. Gannon made both shots and it was 69-64.
"It was like any other game where we get behind," said Carolina's Matt Doherty, who had 15 points. "Coach Smith just kept reminding us we had lots of time left."
Indeed. After the teams had traded free throws, Doherty made a three-pointer from the top of the key to cut it to 70-68 with 2:38 left. Gannon missed the front end of a one-and-one and Brad Daugherty, who had 17 points, tipped in a shot by Perkins to tie at 70 with 48 seconds to go.
That was the same score State faced Friday against Wake and Valvano went for the same play. He spread his team into a 3-2 offense, with Lowe in the middle free-lancing, looking to drive or pass.
But the Tar Heels were prepared. When Lowe drove the lane, four defenders collapsed on him. Perkins slapped the ball away to Curtis Hunter and UNC called time with two seconds left.
Carolina ran the last play for Perkins, who faced the basket and got off a 27-footer at the buzzer that went all the way around the rim before it came out.
"It was one of those deals where you keep saying in the huddle there's no way they're going to score," Valvano said. "Then they inbound and you still say you're okay. Then Perkins gets it way out and you think, almost impossible. Finally, he squared up and by the time he gets to the top of his jump you're saying, 'Oh God, he's going to knock this sucker in.' "
Not quite, though. Nevertheless, the Tar Heels appeared safe in the overtime when they quickly opened an 82-76 lead with 2:13 remaining. When Gannon made two foul shots to cut it to 82-78, it still looked like everyone was playing out the string.
"I was on the bench right then and I was thinking, 'We knock in a three-pointer and no way it's over,' " Lowe said. "We just needed that one thing to get us going."
Instead, they got several things. First, Hunter missed the front end of a one-and-one. Down came State and Whittenburg attempted a three-pointer. Finally, a swish, his first in six tries. It was 82-81 with 1:33 to go. "I think I wanted that three-pointer more than any shot in my life," Whittenburg said. "I wanted to contribute something so bad."
Thirteen seconds later, Jimmy Braddock, who once made 257 consecutive foul shots in practice, badly missed another one-and-one and State had a chance to go ahead. It got the lead when Whittenburg drove the base line and made a reverse layup with 51 seconds left.
Perkins missed at the other end and fouled Whittenburg on the ensuing scramble. Again Whittenburg made two shots for an 85-82 lead. Hunter got it back to 85-84 but Whittenburg made two more with 19 seconds left. Bailey sealed it with two more foul shots with 10 seconds to go.