Scroll to the end of the story to see Todd Turner’s photo gallery from Day 1 of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament.
College basketball can break your heart.
Day 1 of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament is a day of hopes and miracles. It’s when the lowest-ranking teams have an opportunity to show what they’ve got, ride late-season momentum into ACC history, and, if they can win the whole thing, a ticket to the Big Dance: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament later this month. Play their cards right, and they might even get a slot here in Greensboro, which for some of these teams amounts to a home game.
Consider the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who had big wins at the end of the regular season against Carolina, Notre Dame and Duke. And they almost beat Syracuse early in February.
Furthermore, it would have been really terrific for me both personally and professionally if Wake Forest — the only ACC team in the Triad proper — had advanced even a few rounds into the tourney. And if they won? Well, hey: That’s the stuff journalism awards are made for.
Wouldn’t it have been grand, though?
I even picked out a player that I suspected might make a difference: sixth man Andrien White, No. 13, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard who transferred from UNC-Charlotte after starting there for three years, and who also led the team in three-point shooting during the regular season with 55 of them.
I even went to the Deacons’ practice session on Monday to grab some color for my imaginary piece, where I watched White drop eight of 10 from behind the arc.
But of course, Wake lost its first-round game against Pitt today, dashing my own hopes and dreams on the hardwood, like a forgotten T-shirt parachuted down from the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum.
It was a pretty hot one though — with 10 lead changes and 11 ties that belied the final 81-72 score. It was not Andrien White, but Isaiah Mucius who stepped up in the first half, dropping 19 points against a regular-season average of just 6.9 per game. And indeed, at the half things looked pretty good for Wake, who with 9:57 left in the half had an 8-point lead, and were still up 41-40 when the buzzer sounded.
Mucius played, big, as did center Olivier Sarr, who dropped 20 points and nabbed 13 rebounds, eight of them on offense, and guard Brandon Childress, with 17 points and a hand in almost every offensive salvo.
Childress, by the way, would have made a fantastic profile piece later on in this series: He’s from Winston-Salem and his dad is Randolph Childress, a former Demon Deacon who went on to play in the NBA and a slew of international-league teams before returning to Wake Forest as an assistant coach under Head Coach Danny Manning.
Pitt, on the other hand, benefited from magnificent play by forward Justin Champagnie, a one-man army who dropped 31 of his team’s 81 total points, 9 of them from three-point range. Plus, he moved like a wraith through Wake’s defense. I’ll be watching for more from him tomorrow against NC State.
And then there’s Carolina, inspiration for hundreds of thousands of basketball wishes on this day.
You can tell a true Tar Heel fan these days because, even after a terrible season — at 13-18, the worst dadgum season in coach Roy Williams’ 16 dadgum years with the team, and the only losing one to boot — these Tar Heel-bred mothers can still see a way for Carolina to weave its way to the top of the ACC Tournament, thus guaranteeing a berth in the NCAA Championship. The real die-hards even think they still have a chance to win it.
True, Carolina eventually brought Virginia Tech to heel on the hardwood tonight, but most of it was like one of those ugly, low-seed matchups where nothing happens, but with great effort. For the most part, this was not so much a great defensive battle as it was a clash of ineffective offenses. At one point in the first half, a full 2:30 of gameplay went by without a single point scored but six missed shots. Those field-goal percentages stayed low throughout the game: Virginia Tech made just 9 of 31 shots from the field — a slipshod 29.0 percent. Carolina’s first-half field-goal percentage stood at a similarly dismal 36.0 percent, 9 of 25.
Carolina led for almost the entire game, its offense playing it fast and loose, with loopy passes and wild shots that just happened to outperform Virginia Tech’s comparable efforts.
Carolina looked bigger — a lot bigger — and younger, with better hair (though not by much), more tattoos and an eminently more fashionable coaching staff than Virginia Tech. Plus, the Tar Heels fundamentals — passing, rebounding, moving without the ball — all seemed pretty solid… except for the part about getting the ball in the basket.
After the 7-minute mark, when Carolina had extended their lead to 20 points and the game was essentially over, the team put together some beautiful moments, including a quick barrage of threes from guard Brandon Robinson; great hustle by freshman forward Armando Bacot, who recorded 11 rebounds and 12 points; and a beautiful pick and roll from guard Cole Anthony to forward Garrison Brooks for a big, door-slamming dunk.
So, can Carolina ride this style of play into an ACC championship and a seat at the big table? Probably not. But hey: at a 14 seed — last in the entire conference — they weren’t even supposed to win today, and they did, by more than 20 points.
But remember: College basketball can break your heart. And if Carolina wins again tomorrow against 6-seed Syracuse, it will only make the heartbreak worse.
Photos by Todd Turner