It was an afternoon of very nearlys and not quites in the first two quarterfinal games of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
First there was last-place Wake Forest's failed flirt with upset over top-ranked Duke, which managed a 68-60 victory. Then North Carolina State's shot at the buzzer that went awry, preserving Virginia's 64-62 triumph.
In an evening quarterfinal, second-seeded Georgia Tech had an easier time, defeating Clemson, 79-61.
Two teams that had lurked in the shadow of the national rankings all year, fourth-seeded Virginia and fifth-seeded North Carolina State, met in a predictable seesaw affair. But a jumper by DeMatha High product Bennie Bolton from deep in the corner was an airball as time ran out, leaving the Wolfpack with the loss. For the Cavaliers (19-9), it was a typically composed victory that sent them into the semifinals to meet Duke.
"It was a classic, even matchup," Virginia Coach Terry Holland said. "It was probably as even a basketball game as you'll see. We're certainly fortunate to win; I don't think there's a question about that."
Nor was there any question about Duke's luck, for the No. 1 team in the country did not play well. Wake Forest (8-21) captured the imagination of a Greensboro Coliseum crowd of 16,242 for almost 35 highly improbable minutes, trailing by just three with 5:24 left and scaring the smugness out of the Blue Devils before succumbing.
"We almost got sent home real quick," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I was worried for all 40 minutes. I was worried for more than 40 minutes."
Duke (30-2) will meet Virginia in Saturday's first semifinal at 1:30 p.m.
Sixth-ranked Georgia Tech (24-5) allowed the Tigers (17-14) to come as close as six with 7:30 remaining before outrunning them to advance to the other semifinal game.
Georgia Tech will meet Maryland at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets took a 35-38 lead at the end of a contentious first half in which Georgia Tech's Mark Price and Clemson's Grayson Marshall exchanged shoves. Then they scored six straight points early in the second period to open a 14-point margin, Duane Ferrell's bank shot with 13:28 left making it 50-36.
Clemson then went on a 12-4 run over the next 5:58 to make it a six-point game. Forward Horace Grant scored six of the points on his way to a game-high 22, and Chris Michael's jumper with 7:30 left cut it to 54-48.
Georgia Tech, however, immediately responded with a 12-5 run, sparked by Price's six points, to open a 13-point margin. Two free throws from Price made it 66-53 with 4:09 left, and the Yellow Jackets coasted from there.
Price and Ferrell had 20 points each as four Yellow Jackets were in double figures. John Salley and Bruce Dalrymple added 12 each. Marshall was the only other Tiger in double figures, with 10 points.
"It was just physical and intense," Price said. "I just got a little excited there for a while. It was a rough game, and you have to expect that in a tournament. But we ended up doing some good things."
North Carolina State (18-12) did not do enough good things in the final seconds of its loss to Virginia. The 20th-ranked Wolfpack rallied from a nine-point deficit early in the second half to cut it to two with 4:18 left. When Virginia's Tom Sheehey missed a layin from the lane with 21 seconds to go, N.C. State had its chance to send it into overtime.
But the Wolfpack pushed the ball upcourt looking for a play and the seconds ticked away. Coach Jim Valvano finally gestured wildly for a timeout and got it with just five seconds remaining.
"I didn't want another timeout," Valvano said. "On the last one, we had set the play. I told our guys if Virginia didn't score, to run it. But it wasn't happening, so I took the timeout. We came back and ran the same play, and we got exactly what we wanted. I'd do it again right now."
On the inbounds play, guard Nate McMillan dribbled twice looking for a shot, then passed to Bolton, the Wolfpack's best outside shooter. But he was deep in the corner and his jumper was over the mark, never touching the rim as time ran out.
"I knew it was off as soon as it left my hands," Bolton said. "I rushed it and tried to follow it, but it wasn't there."
The miss ended what was widely expected to be the closest and most watchable game of the first round. The Wolfpack trailed, 27-26, at the end of a nervously sloppy first half, then were outscored by 11-3 by Virginia in the opening minutes of the second period, the Cavaliers taking a 38-29 lead with 15:43 left. But Virginia let a seven-point margin it held as late as the 5:38 mark slip away as N.C. State scored five straight, three by Charles Shackleford, to cut it to two, 58-56.
Four scorers were in double figures for both and the matchup beween 6-foot-10 centers Olden Polynice of Virginia and Chris Washburn of N.C. State did not disappoint. Washburn won that one with a game-high 19 points.
Polynice and guard Mel Kennedy had 16 points each to lead the Cavaliers, with Sheehey and Andrew Kennedy scoring 12 each. Bolton had 15 and Shackleford 12 for the Wolfpack.
Duke was sleep walking in its noon meeting with Wake Forest. In a game marked by turnovers and loose-ball scuffles, the Demon Deacons cut a nine-point deficit to three with 7:34 left on an 8-2 run before the Blue Devils finally played like the No. 1 team.
"I think we took them lightly," said forward Mark Alarie, who had a game-high 22 points. "Maybe we were looking to tomorrow, and this opened our eyes a little. I never felt they were out of it."
The Demon Deacons took a brief three-point lead in the first half and trailed just 37-36 at halftime. Charlie Thomas' free throws with 5:24 left made it 55-52, but that's when Duke made its move and Wake never came closer than five again.
For the Demon Deacons, it may have been their best performance of a struggling season, in which they were down to a roster of nine at one point as a result of injuries and player departures. "Duke was just lucky, obviously," first-year Coach Bob Staak said jokingly.
Johnny Dawkins scored 16 points and David Henderson had 15 in what was a lackluster offensive performance for the Blue Devils. Defensively, they were sluggish. For Wake Forest, Rod Watson scored 18 points, Thomas 17 and Mark Cline 10.
Tyrone Bogues, the 5-foot-3 conference leader in assists, had eight points and a game-high 10 assists to galvanize Wake Forest. But the Demon Deacons eventually did themselves in with 21 turnovers, 17 on Duke steals. The Blue Devils weren't much better, however, turning it over 17 times.