15 13 teams, 14 12 games, 1 (sort of) winner?

It starts with a flashback: March 12, 2020 — Day 3 of the 2020 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, back in Greensboro for the first time since 2015.

That’s when ACC Commissioner John Swofford halted Florida State’s pre-game drills, called the media onto the court and sent everybody home. And there it was: a line of demarcation, a clear point between the before and the after. For many of us, it was the day that the coronavirus became real.

This is why, probably for the rest of my life, when I think about the coronavirus, I will think about the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament.

***

Last year’s ACC tournament was a big deal for the Greensboro Coliseum, which was also set to host an early round of the NCAA Final Four Tournament the next week; it was a big deal for the city of Greensboro, too — a chance to dig out those “Tournament Town” banners and remind the overlords of college basketball why our city makes a great host for these events. The opening of a new, coliseum-led downtown performing arts center was set to coincide with the NCAA rounds, and a slate of events had been booked downtown.

It was a big deal for Triad City Beat, too. I hadn’t covered the tournament in years, but I had secured a credential and enlisted photographer Todd Turner to shoot the thing. I was going to file something every day for both tournaments, and I had lined up sponsors, a posting schedule and a bracket contest for the readers with a cash prize.

Wake Forest’s Isaiah Mucius (1) shoots on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Winston-Salem Journal/Andrew Dye) 031021-wsj-spt-wake

People were talking about the coronavirus on that first day. I didn’t see any masks, but I had never seen so many members of the media washing their hands after going to the bathroom. That afternoon, news trickled through the media center that Coachella had been postponed.

But by Day 2 of the tournament, cases had been popping up across the country. That afternoon, the NCAA announced that forthwith, all college sports for the rest of the year would be held without fans. The UNC System moved all classes online at all of its schools. Later, at halftime during the Carolina-Syracuse game, the ACC told us this would be the last game of the tournament with fans inside the coliseum. That night, the NBA suspended its season until further notice.

The media enclave lit up with the news. No fans! A cameraman remembered a baseball game in 2015 between the Orioles and White Sox that was played without fans because of unrest on the streets of Baltimore after the police killing of Freddy Gray.

None of us knew how prophetic this memory would be.

On Thursday morning, legendary News & Record sports columnist Ed Hardin pulled me aside.

“We’re not playing these games today.”

Overnight, the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Big East had canceled their tournaments. The Ivy League had never even started theirs. And there was no one I trusted more with this than Hardin.

Sure enough, not 60 minutes later there we all were, standing shellshocked on the court while Swofford awarded the ACC trophy to Florida State, the regular-season champs, their ticket to the NCAA Final Four Tournament set to start in a week.

“If there is an NCAA tournament,” Swofford said. “We hope there will be. We can’t assure there will be.”

There wasn’t.

***

I have been covering the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in some manner since 2003, when my editor Jeri Rowe had me spend the night in the coliseum watching the crew lay the basketball court atop an ice rink, back when they still held hockey games there.

The first time I sat at Press Row — the line of courtside reporters’ stations for working media — was 2006. I remember I had the last seat in the line, the absolute worst, bottom-of-the-barrel slot. Scott Yost of the old Rhinoceros Times had a better spot, and he wasn’t even writing anything. This was before smartphones, and not every reporter had a laptop back then. I did, but I covered that tournament with a notebook and a pen. There were piles and piles of printed pages with game books, school programs, roster sheets and more available on a long table to all working press. I used those, too.

This year, I had halfheartedly applied for credentials and wasn’t particularly surprised that I had been turned down for an in-person seat, though with a “virtual credential” I’d have online access to all the games, the post-game press conferences, pool photography and all stats and data. But a couple days later, Gov. Roy Cooper eased coronavirus restrictions, allowing for some fans into the coliseum for the games, and, presumably, a couple more reporters. So I kept asking, and I got cleared for a credential on the morning of the first day, just a few hours before the first game started at noon.

Duke’s Mark Williams (15) pulls in a rebound from Louisville’s Dre Davis (14) during the second half of Duke’s 70-56 victory over Louisville in the second round of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

I didn’t even have a seat assigned on Press Row, but I considered myself lucky to be a part of the skeleton crew covering the event while Ed Hardin was not, laid off in September 2020 with a few other members of the N&R sports crew.

Also, I hadn’t really been anywhere in a year, since I left the coliseum on that day in 2020, picked up my kids from school and started working at my dining room table.

Everything is different. The little media village, usually relegated to some rooms off the coliseum floor, had been moved to a swanky part of the concession ring. Press Row, usually a couple rows of tables on one side of the court, was now L-shaped, with spots along the end zone, and the reporters, once crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder, spaced six feet apart.

There were fewer reporters by at least half, no corps of vested photojournalists rotating out of the spots under the nets, no looky-loos — those who secure credentials just to get great seats for a game — and no long table of printed press materials that I’ve used for every tournament I’ve ever covered. No press conferences, no locker-room access, no in-person interviews with players or coaches. No swag bags for media, either. Usually we get a pin or a hat or something. Last year it was a wireless phone charger with the ACC logo on it.

More than that: There were no cheerleaders, spirit bands or dance teams; no halftime show; no concessions or merchandise; no little kids volunteering to push sweat mops under the baskets; no long-winded presentations by corporate champions; no time-out promos; no T-shirt cannon; no mascots; and very few fans — few enough, that first game to count them: I saw 33 people seated in the lower deck, all masked and sensibly spaced.

These early games, for the lowest-seeded teams in the tournament, can be tough to watch but Tuesday held enough drama to keep everyone interested. For one, 13-seed Miami upset 12-seed Pitt in what would become a damn good run through the tourney. Also there was Wake Forest, a 14 seed that, had they been able to get a couple rounds deep, could have been the focus of this entire article. The Triad’s only ACC team lost in miserable fashion on Tuesday by holding the lead against 11-seed Notre Dame for the first 35 minutes of the game, at times by as many as 15 points, only to lose on a 3-point buzzer-beater by Notre Dame’s Trey Wertz.

And then there’s Duke.

The perennial darling of college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils came in a 10 seed this year, with a dismal regular-season performance that had them considering the possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. Jasmyn Fritz of the Triangle’s Sports Shop Radio figured that Duke didn’t have to win the ACC Tournament to get to the Big Dance, “but they have to get all the way to the championship game.”

Every reporter in the scrum had keyed in on this storyline: This Duke team would have to win at least four games to avoid being the one that broke Coach K’s legendary streak, one of the best in sports.

On that first night, Duke obliged by smashing 15-seed Boston College 86-51 with strong play from freshman guard DJ Steward, who put up 17 points, and freshman center Mark Williams, who was good for 13. I knew the game was over when there was still 14 minutes left.

***

Had Wake Forest managed to hang onto their lead against Notre Dame, Day 2 of the ACC Tournament could have been known as North Carolina Day, with games from Duke, UNC and NC State on the docket.

By now, UNCG had won the Southern Conference Tournament and App State won the Sun Belt, giving each a berth in the NCAA Tournament. NC A&T looked pretty good too, with a shot at winning the MEAC Tournament, which had just started. NC looked to be ably represented at the Big Dance, which would also be very different this year: The whole thing will be played under a bubble in Indianapolis, spread among several event spaces and culminating at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts play football, before a limited number of fans.

That’s the plan anyway. By the end of the day, everything seemed much less certain than it did at the beginning. At the beginning, things were rosy.

Carolina’s RJ Davis (4) celebrates a dunk on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Winston-Salem Journal/Andrew Dye) 031121-wsj-spt-unc

The day before, North Carolina registered fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus cases for the first time since autumn. A COVID relief bill had passed the House, with a huge raft of provisions for poor and working people. Like approximately one in four Americans, I had taken my first shot of the vaccine the morning of Day 2. And though my name wasn’t on the official list of Press Row seat assignments, I finagled a seat in the north end zone and snapped a couple photos with my phone to make my college roommates jealous.

A lot has changed over the years on Press Row, but the view is always spectacular.

I was one of the younger reporters when I started covering these games, back when the press corps for just about any high-level sport was overwhelmingly male and white, even for basketball, which is the Blackest sport.

It’s changed: more women and people of color sit on Press Row, more Black-owned media companies have access. But still most of the people covering these games look a lot like me.

I always knew this, but after the deaths of George Floyd and John Neville in the last year, after listening to the grievances of Black folks, after livestreaming dozens of hours of protests, writing and editing thousands of words’ worth of stories, after Winston-Salem was occupied and Free Dope Major shut down the highway and the protesters got arrested at the Confederate monument in Graham, after everything I, personally, have learned in the last 12 months, I see it.

I see it.

I had high hopes for this North Carolina storyline, too, sweetened by NC State freshman starter Cam Hayes, who was a star at Greensboro Day School before committing to the Wolfpack. Syracuse, NC State’s opponent for the first game of the day, also had a local angle: Head Coach Jim Boeheim has talked a bunch of shit about Greensboro in the past, specifically about its status as host for the ACC Tourney.

It’s worth mentioning here that the ACC was founded in Greensboro, at the Starmount Country Club in 1953, 60 years before Syracuse joined the conference, and that this was the 25th such tournament to be held here, if you count last year, which I do.

But Hayes had a lackluster performance in his hometown ACC debut: just 9 points, two of them three-pointers and one of them a free throw. No assists. In my notes, I gave the player of the game to Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim, the coach’s son, who put up 27 points, with five assists and a few rebounds thrown in. It wasn’t close: Syracuse pulled ahead halfway through the first half and NC State never caught up, losing 89-68.

I considered the Miami storyline — after the previous day’s upset of Pitt, they took down a big dog on Day 2, knocking out 5-seed Clemson in a close one, after a monster second half by sophomore guard Isaiah Wong, who turned in 13 of his 20 points and two of his six rebounds. Final score: 67-64.

Georgia Tech’s Georgia Tech’s Jordan Usher and Florida State’s Raiquan Gray collide during the game during an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Championship in Greensboro, N.C., on Saturday, March 13, 2021.

But the only person in the arena who cared about the Hurricanes was a student journalist from the university, who was sleeping on his cousin’s couch in Greensboro while covering the team.

That left Duke and Carolina, the last two games of the night and the two teams for which the ACC was made. A couple more wins by either team, and we’d see a classic Tobacco Road face-off in the semifinals. For so many ACC fans, this rivalry is what it’s all about; it’s what every journalist, TV producer, ACC staffer and casual fan wanted to see.

It didn’t look good for Duke. They’d already lost twice to Louisville in the regular season, and during warmups they looked small and young, which they were.

I am a sucker for an underdog, plus the storyline: Could the Blue Devils come off a mediocre season to win ACC? Or, at least, continue their streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, which could only happen after a couple more wins?

Everyone who watched that game knows Duke gave an inspiring performance, pulling ahead early in the first half and never really giving it up. Two players, sophomore forward Matthew Hurt and freshman center Mark Williams, put up more than 20 points apiece. Williams snagged an incredible 19 rebounds in that game; not a record — that honor goes to John Richter of NC State, who in 1959 grabbed 23 in an overtime win against South Carolina — but one of the best overall performances of the entire tournament.

Duke took the win, 70-56.

Carolina, a 6-seed this year, did their part in the last game of the night by destroying Notre Dame 101-59 in a painful blowout. But Duke was the story of the day, two games into their possibly historic run with at least two more to go. Tomorrow they’d face 2-seed Florida State, last year’s champion. It would be Florida State’s first game of the tournament, while Duke was coming in with strong momentum. It would be one for the ages.

Or so we all thought.

***

In 2020, there was no Day 3 of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. That was the day we all got sent home. Personally, it was the first day that I started to understand the scope of the impending pandemic. It was the first time I was afraid.

This year, Day 3 offered a stark reminder that the coronavirus is not done with us yet.

Members of the press corps got the announcement in our inboxes: Duke was out following “a positive test, subsequent quarantining, and contact tracing within the Duke men’s basketball program,” according to the missive.

There would be no historic run for the Blue Devils in this ACC Tournament. The NCAA streak would be broken. Duke was out. Florida State would advance to the semifinals without stepping on the court.

Beat reporters scrambled in the hours before tip-off on Day 3 to nail the story down, grab quotes from Duke and ACC officials, calculate the effect this would have on the rest of the college basketball season.

Georgia Tech’s Jordan Usher goes up for a dunk in the final minutes of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Championship in Greensboro, N.C., on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Georgia Tech defeated Florida State 80 to 75.

Locally, NC A&T had pulled out of the MEAC Tournament due to a positive coronavirus test. Duke University put a stay-in-place order for its students after the outbreak there. Though the vaccines had started to flow, as many as 2.5 million a day in the United States, the coronavirus still posed a clear threat.

I spent the early part of the day wondering if I had been caught up in a superspreader event, and how much protection that first vaccine dose afforded me.

I suppose Day 3 of this tournament is always about fear in one way or another. It’s the day that any surviving lower seeds must face top-seeded rivals. Courtside, you can really see the difference between a 1-seed like Virginia and an 8-seed like Syracuse, the first game of the day.

Syracuse looked great against NC State, but Virginia benefited from the presence of a true big man, 7-foot-1 Jay Huff, a senior from Durham who could rebound, shoot and even sink free throws, which is hard for 7-footers to do. Something about the angle and the arc.

Despite the mismatch, this proved to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament yet: five lead changes, all of them in the second half. Syracuse, led by Buddy Boheim, in an inspired scoring performance, managed to tie the score from six points back with just 29 seconds on the clock. Freshman guard Reece Beekman put Virginia ahead 72-69 with his only score of the game, a 3-point buzzer-beater

We didn’t know then that this was the last we would see of Virginia.

Later, 4-seed Georgia Tech would end Miami’s ACC Tournament run with another burner, reaching a final score of 70-66 only after eight lead changes and despite a late run of scoring by Miami senior guard Kameron McGusty.

With no Duke-Florida State game, all that remained of the Old North State was Carolina, who after a mediocre season and middling seed in the ACC Tournament would need to make something happen tonight against 3-seed Virginia Tech.

The coliseum held the most fans I’d seen all tournament, too many to count by eye. Silver-vested ushers walked the rows with signs enforcing the 6-foot distancing rule, but many — many — wore no masks or kept them dangling underneath their chins while they shouted at the refs. Also noteworthy: Two Hokies kneeled during the National Anthem, the first I’d noticed since the start of the tournament.

Carolina came in hot off a 100-point performance the night before, but Virginia Tech forward Justyn Mutts, a redshirt junior, and sophomore guard Tyrece Radford dropped 14 apiece in the first 20 minutes, putting Virginia up by three at the half. The game stayed close until the midpoint of the second half, when a three-point shot by freshman guard RJ Davis put Carolina up 53-49, a lead they held until the end.

This was a big upset, but not as big as the news that awaited us the next morning.

***

By now, everybody who cares about college knows that Virginia had to drop out of the ACC Tournament semifinals after a positive coronavirus test from a team member, just as Kansas University had to withdraw from the Big 12 Tournament and, locally, A&T pulled out of the MEAC.

So only one game would be played on Day 4, a semifinal match between Carolina and Florida State, now the highest-ranked team left in the tourney, in their very first game of the week.

Carolina fans will be complaining for years about this loss: The bad call at the 10-minute mark, how much better they would have played with fans in the arena, foul troubles, missed shots, bad passes, the tired Tarheels versus the fresh legs of Florida State, and why they probably should have been playing against Duke that night anyway.

Carolina played close right until the end, coming within two points with just 3 seconds left on the clock. If the game was 30 seconds longer, they might have won it.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) battles for a loose ball with Notre Dame’s Cormac Ryan (5) during the second half on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 during the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.

And so it was that the final game of the 2021 ACC on Saturday night featured two teams that had played just one game apiece on their way to the championship: Florida State, whose game against Duke was canceled before beating Carolina, and Georgia Tech, who managed to avoid a game against 1-seed Virginia after winning their only game against 13-seed Miami. At game time, the bookies gave Florida State a 4.5-point advantage.

But the Old North State angle to this story died when the final buzzer sounded. The coliseum was largely empty for this final game, and though it aired on ESPN, most of the media had cleared out.

It was a fine game — a lot of points, a lot of dunks, close enough to keep it interesting until the last couple minutes and a rare win by an underdog: Georgia Tech prevailed 80-75. And for the first time in a life covering sports, I heard a performance of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” before the big game.

But after five days of solid basketball, half a notebook full of scribblings, more than a couple scary surprises and too many cups of reporter-grade Keurig coffee to count, I felt about this game the way I felt about the pandemic: I wanted it to be over.

But like the coronavirus itself, the ACC Tournament operates on its own timeline, with no regard for me.

***

Epilogue:

The NCAA Tournament brackets came out Sunday night. Seven ACC teams made the cut and will play across all four regions: Virginia (4), Florida State (4), Clemson (7), Carolina (8), Georgia Tech (9), Virginia Tech (10) and Syracuse (11).

UNCG got a 13 seed in the Eastern Division facing Florida State in the first round. App State has a play-in game for a 16 seed in the West, facing 1-seed Gonzaga if they win on Thursday night. NC A&T University lost its hopes of the NCAA tournament after bowing out of the MEAC.

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