Sunday March 13th, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Jarrett Jack was the man in possession of the basketball when Georgia Tech's 78-75 victory over North Carolina officially went into the books on Saturday. A potential game-tying 3-point attempt by the Tar Heels' Rashad McCants had rimmed out in the final seconds, caroming to the Jackets' junior point guard, who was faced with a critical decision after the final horn blared in the MCI Center: what to do with the rock.

Last month, when Tech (19-10) was in the midst of three-game losing streak and its NCAA-tournament worthiness questioned, Jack, desperate for a big-victory memento, might have clung to the ball after knocking off a team like UNC. But on Saturday, after the Jackets' third straight win propelled them into the ACC tournament final, Jack chose a different course of action.

He gave the orange sphere a Herculean heave, well beyond the opposite baseline, depositing it squarely in the center of a deflated, baby-blue UNC cheering section.

It was a missile with a message, not just for the top-seeded Heels and the rest of the ACC, but the nation: Don't write off Georgia Tech for the dance.

Regardless of what their NCAA tournament seed may be, or what transpired in the tumultuous season prior to this D.C. resurgence, take heed: the Jackets have their swagger back.

Jack said his 17-year-old brother, Justin, had noticed Tech's attitude, or lack thereof, after watching the team beat Clemson on Sunday. "He said to me, 'Last year, you guys played with a swagger that was not arrogant, but kind of cocky. It was knowing that you were the best team and you were going to go out and play like it,'" Jarrett recalled.

Initially, Jack just played the role of all-knowing older brother and laughed. But later, he would admit that, "It was something we needed to take seriously."

"That's the attitude," Jack said, "that we adopted this weekend."

After blowing through Virginia Tech 73-54 in Friday's quarterfinal, the fifth-seeded Jackets came out Saturday and posted their most impressive effort of the season to date. Senior guard Will Bynum exploded for 35 points, including 23 in a second half that saw the two teams trade punches until the final possession. Bynum averaged just 11.6 points in the regular season and was inconsistent, scoring in double figures in just one of Tech's final six games prior to the ACC tournament. But on Saturday, he looked like the dynamic guard whose late 3-pointers powered Tech past Kansas and into the Final Four in 2004, and who beat Oklahoma State with a last-second layup to earn a spot in the title game against Connecticut.

North Carolina (29-3), the ACC's No. 1 team in field-goal defense this season, tried, but repeatedly failed, to contain Bynum, first using Raymond Felton, then Melvin Scott and finally Jackie Manuel against the Jackets' scoring star. Hewitt had a chat with Bynum late in Friday's win over the Hokies, telling his guard to be more aggressive in looking for his shot -- and, suffice it to say, the message had resonance.

"I saw it start happening in the second half," Jack said. "He got to bouncing around, and he hit one of those Willy Bynum shots [a high-speed runner in the lane] -- and when those start falling, you have to keep going to him."

To understand Tech's transformation -- from a bumbling bubble team to a squad that looks poised to pounce in the postseason -- one only need to look back to its previous meeting with UNC, on Jan. 12 in Chapel Hill. The Jackets, without the services of senior guard B.J. Elder, and freshman forwards Jeremis Smith and Ra'Sean Dickey, suffered a 91-69 shellacking. UNC grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Tech 52-33, as Sean May and Jawad and Marvin Williams toyed with Jackets' center Luke Schenscher in the paint.

"That game was something that hurt us a lot," Schenscher said of his team, which eventually fell out of the top 25.

Saturday, Tech outrebounded UNC 47-40, and 21-17 on the offensive glass. Schenscher, looking like the center who wreaked havoc on Oklahoma State in the Final Four, scored 15 points and grabbed 10 boards, effectively canceling out May's 17 and 11. And Elder and Smith, despite scoring just eight points combined, played key roles in the victory.

"[Elder's] presence -- his mere presence on the floor -- opens it up for other guys," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "It's not a matter of how many points he scores, it's a matter of our team being whole. With him on the floor, it gives a lot of space to Jarrett and Will to work."

In January, Tech didn't even belong on the same court with UNC. On Saturday, even though the Jackets were unranked and the Heels were No. 2 in the nation, they looked like peers. College basketball's over-used "U-word," Hewitt asserted, was not applicable here.

"North Carolina could very well win the national championship, but this was no upset today," Hewitt said. "I want to make that point clear. These are two great teams."

Georgia Tech's mid-season struggles -- losses to N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Maryland -- were more attributable to lack-of-health than lack-of-chemistry. With Elder and Smith back, and ailing Isma'il Muhammad likely to return for the NCAA tournament, the Jackets can finally be whole again. Key role players from last season's title run, like Marvin Lewis and Clarence Moore, are gone, but cogs like sophomore guard Mario West, who locked down on McCants late in the game and grabbed two huge rebounds in the final minutes, look ready to step up in their place. Hewitt, who thinks national pundits weren't taking Tech's myriad injuries into account when discrediting it as a non-contender, said, "to be written off was kind of amusing to me."

Tech goes on to face Duke in Sunday's title game, and stands to enter the NCAA tournament between a No. 7 and 9 seed, clearly lower than Hewitt or the media anticipated at the season's outset. But judging from what has transpired in D.C. this weekend, the Jackets' story will not be that of title-runners-up who fell apart the following season, never living up to the great expectations heaped upon them in preseason polls (where they unanimously sat in the top five).

Hewitt's squad, which he said "is now probably better than a five seed in [the ACC] tournament," simply waited much longer than expected to hit its stride. And Tech is clearly, not probably, better than a five-seed in this conference's bracket.

When Sunday's NCAA tournament field -- the bracket that really matters -- is announced, the Jackets will be far more dangerous than the pedestrian number next to their name indicates.

This team will be the mediocre seed that no one wants to face.

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