Pity Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins. He has such a young, inexperienced basketball team. And now, he is without star freshman Duane Ferrell.
Pity North Carolina Coach Dean Smith. He has such a young, inexperienced basketball team. And now he must face a Georgia Tech juggernaut that already has defeated his poor Tar Heels twice this season.
Smith and Cremins somehow will get their poor teams to The Omni Sunday afternoon to play for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Cremins' Georgia Tech team managed to defeat Duke, 75-64, in one semifinal this afternoon and Smith's North Carolina team slipped past N.C. State, 57-51.
North Carolina is 24-7 for the season and Tech is 23-7. To hear the two coaches talk, one would think they have reached this point playing with one hand tied behind their backs.
"That was really a gutty performance by our team," Cremins said after the Yellow Jackets had beaten a Duke team that played all but 53 seconds without two-time all-ACC forward Mark Alarie. "In the second half when it got tough, we really hung in there."
Smith already was thinking ahead. "I just hope we can keep it close against Tech," he said. "We played well against them last time here and they still beat us."
Today's losers had nothing to be ashamed of. Duke (22-7) hung in until the very end even though Alarie, after trying to play despite a hip-pointer suffered Friday against Maryland, couldn't finish the first minute of the game.
N.C. State (20-9) was in the game until the final minute even though its best player, Lorenzo Charles, played his worst game of the season, hitting just two of 10 shots and getting only four rebounds.
After spending much of the night in a whirlpool, Alarie still was so sore this morning he knew he was in trouble.
"When I woke up this morning, it was still awfully sore," said Alarie, who was averaging 17 points and seven rebounds a game and had scored 21 against Maryland before getting hurt. "I tried stretching during warmups hoping it would loosen up but it didn't.
"Then on the first play of the game I went to try to take a charge and had no control of my body. It felt weird. I knew I couldn't play then. Anyone else would do better."
In Alarie's absence, Duke got a heroic performance from his roommate, 6-foot-8 center Jay Bilas, who scored 21 points and got nine rebounds. Johnny Dawkins scored 19 points. But the man who replaced Alarie, David Henderson, had a horrendous day. Henderson was three of 12 from the field, zero for two from the foul line and had four turnovers.
The Yellow Jackets also were without a starter -- Ferrell, who hurt a knee Friday. But his replacement, senior Scott Petway, produced numbers not that different from Ferrell's -- four points, six rebounds and four assists.
"Duke is not the same team without Mark Alarie," Cremins said graciously. "I'd hate to think of our team without John Salley in there."
Salley had 15 points today, and he and fellow 7-footer Yvon Joseph (12 points) were just too big and too strong inside for Duke without Alarie. Each team's guards performed extremely well. Bruce Dalrymple was brilliant for Tech with 16 points, nine rebounds, five assists and all-over-the-floor play you just don't often see.
Mark Price, the darling of the media here, also played well. He scored 24 points, many of them down the stretch when he controlled the ball and Duke was forced to foul him. Price made all 14 of his foul shots, ensuring there would be no late Duke rally.
"I was really proud of our kids today," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "When Mark (Alarie) went out they really worked hard to try and compensate. Bilas played the game of his life. I couldn't have asked any more of them. Tech just did an excellent job today. They deserved to win."
Krzyzewski had plenty to ask the officials about, though. He drew a technical foul from referee Tom Fraim seven minutes into the game and was still furious about the way the game was called after it was over.
"I know we have a gag rule but the season's over," he said. "Today's game was a disgrace. There were more body checks out there than in a hockey game and nothing was called. Our kids were confused because they didn't know what was going to be called and what wasn't."
But Krzyzewski specifically said that the officials didn't cost Duke the game. He was right. The Blue Devils, down by 10 in the first half and forced to go to a rarely-used zone because of foul trouble, came back in the second half on the superb play of Bilas and Dawkins.
They tied the score at 40 on a jump shot by freshman Kevin Strickland with 12:30 left and took their only lead of the second half, 42-41, with 11:02 left on two free throws by Dawkins.
But the Blue Devils ran out of steam. Dalrymple, the best player on the court today, hit a jump shot to put Tech ahead, 43-42. On their next three possessions, the Blue Devils produced a miss by Henderson, a turnover by Henderson and a miss by Martin Nessley, forced into service because of Alarie's absence.
Price hit twice during that stretch, and when Salley hit two foul shots with 7:55 left it was 49-44. Duke had one more run left. Dawkins' drive and a three-point play by Bilas cut the margin to 53-51 with 5:16 to go.
But on Tech's next possession, Tommy Amaker was called for fouling Price.. The two free throws made it 55-51, and Duke went cold again, missing three straight shots while Joseph and Salley were scoring. That made it 59-51 and Tech was in its first ACC final ever.
"There's no excuses to make, they beat us," said Bilas. "But I have to feel like we would have done better with Mark. But 'If' is a big word. I guess that's been said before but we'll always wonder."
N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano undoubtedly will wonder, at least tonight, what might have happened if Charles had not picked today to be awful. Even without its star playing well, the Wolfpack had the score tied at 46 after a pretty pass by Nate McMillan to Cozell McQueen (12 points) had tied the game with 3:26 to play.
Carolina, ever-patient at the end of a game, ran its offense until Steve Hale came open on the base line. He calmly swished a 16-footer for a 48-46 lead with 3:05 left. State tried to answer, but with the shot clock running down, Terry Gannon tossed up an ugly 20-foot brick and Joe Wolf promptly put in a hook from the base line to make it 50-46 with 1:30 remaining. That was the game, as Kenny Smith (16 points) and Curtis Hunter made the foul shots in the final minute for the Tar Heels.
"Both teams played hard, but I think both teams were very tired after playing last night," Valvano said, considering his team's 43 percent shooting. "We've lost two games in our last 10 and both times our foul shooting hurt us. Today, we were five for 12."
Mostly, though, North Carolina's defense hurt the Wolfpack. With lots of help inside, Brad Daugherty did an excellent job on Charles, and Smith, after being burned by Anthony Webb for 12 first-half points, held him to one point in the second half.
Valvano was asked to pick a winner in the final. After going on at length about each team's strengths and weaknesses, he smiled and said, "I'm not making any predictions."
No matter. One can always ask Cremins -- he'll pick Carolina by about 50. Or, one can ask Smith -- he'll pick Tech by 51. Somehow, though, they'll both show up Sunday.