One scene summed up the entire Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and it wasn't North Carolina coach Dean Smith joyously hugging assistant Dick Harp after the Tar Heels' 77-74 final-round victory over Duke at the Omni in Atlanta.
No, the telling moment came six minutes into Sunday's final, with Carolina leading 16-6. The Tar Heels' Kevin Madden grabbed a rebound and fell to the floor with the ball. Smith thought Madden had been fouled. Referee Dick Paparo disagreed and called Madden for traveling. Smith raged at Paparo, then turned, and almost quicker than the eye could see, he kicked a chair.
That's right, kicked it. He even used his left foot, perhaps in honor of his old friend Lefty Driesell, who once destroyed a chair with a swift kick during this same tournament. But Driesell attacking a chair was dog bites man. This was the opposite. There was a simple message in Smith's impromptu punt: "I'm tired of all this Duke stuff."
In fact, that feeling ran through the North Carolina team. "Deep down we all wanted to play Duke today," said forward J.R. Reid, who had 14 points and nine rebounds in the final and was voted the MVP. "They beat us last year, and we kept hearing they were the best team in the league. We wanted to prove today that we were the best team by beating them in a big game."
North Carolina's title was Smith's 10th in 28 ACC tournament appearances, but his first since 1982, the year he won his only national championship. Since then Duke has won the tournament twice and been to the Final Four twice; it had also won four of its last five meetings with the Tar Heels, including last year's championship game.
"I thought this game was just like the game last year," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, his voice nearly gone afterward. "Both teams played their hearts out. We just couldn't get the shots to drop. They were good shots, they just didn't go in."
A lot of shots didn't drop during the tournament. It started at high noon last Friday, when North Carolina State, the top-seeded team, played as if it had to get out of Atlanta before Sherman and the Union Army showed up. Facing a Maryland team that had gone 1-13 in league play, the Wolfpack expected a one-sided blowout. That's what happened, but somehow the roles got reversed. Maryland, using its bench for a total of six minutes, spread the floor, used Driesell's old double-low-post offense and thumped State 71-49.
"Nightmare on Peachtree Street," said North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, though the Omni is on Tech-wood Drive. "I guess we had trouble figuring out their substitution pattern."
Maryland became the first team in conference history to win a game as the eighth seed, but the Terrapins did little celebrating. About 20 minutes after the game, Maryland coach Bob Wade was talking to several reporters when he suddenly grabbed his left side, excused himself, walked into his locker room, sat down and asked to see his trainer. Moments later he was taken on a stretcher to Georgia Baptist Medical Center, where he was treated for dehydration. The following morning he was given a cardiac catheterization to ensure that there was no blockage in his arteries. Wade was released from the hospital later that day, too late to coach his team in its semifinal game against Carolina.
Missing that 88-58 debacle may have been the best break Wade has had all season. The Terps, who finished at 9-20, have been wracked by dissension; they are also under investigation by the NCAA for allegations that assistant coaches illegally drove recruiting prospect Rudy Archer to his community college classes. They have also been torn by rumors that Wade, who is 36-50 at Maryland, may be fired with two years left on his five-year contract.
Maryland's upset victory and subsequent blowout loss typified play during the first two days of the tournament. The closest score through the semis was Duke's 69-58 win over Virginia. In fact, when John Smith made two free throws to put Duke ahead 59-57 with 5:44 left in the final, it was the first second-half lead change of the entire tournament.
But as one could have predicted, the North Carolina-Duke final redeemed the tournament. Of the ACC's eight schools, only Duke and Carolina have won at least 20 games in each of the past six seasons, and they are the only league teams to have played in each of the past six NCAA tournaments. Of course, Smith has been there every year since 1975. But Krzyzewski is catching up. In the past six years his teams have gone 160-44. What's more, the articulate, outgoing Blue Devils have become the media darlings of the ACC. Krzyzewski is so determined to allow his players to speak their minds that he called forward Danny Ferry in during his freshman season and told him to stop uttering banalities to reporters.
The glut of stories about the smart and funny Devils rankles Smith. So does having Ferry win two ACC player-of-the-year awards over Reid. Smith's irritation was apparent last Tuesday when, during the league's weekly telephone press conference, he took a routine question about Reid's future at North Carolina—did Smith think Reid might skip his senior season to turn pro?—and responded with a diatribe.
Smith demanded to know why no one ever asks about white players' skipping their senior years, and said he was tired of the J.R. CAN'T REID signs he had seen in several arenas. Smith finished by saying that Reid and Tar Heel center Scott Williams had higher combined SAT scores than Duke's Ferry and forward Christian Laettner.
"I was trying to make a point about assumptions people make about black and white athletes," Smith said afterward. "Ferry and Laettner are very good students, but so are J.R. and Scott."
Krzyzewski refused to be drawn into this particular fight. "I don't know if the statement [about the SAT scores] is factually right or wrong, and I'm not going to talk about it," he said. "I just worry about Duke. I don't care what anyone else's players made on their SATs."
Krzyzewski wouldn't say anything further, except to reveal that he scored 1,160 on his SATs, but it was apparent that the entire Duke contingent thought that Smith's remarks were out of line. The flap provided a nice buildup for the final game, which was billed, not surprisingly, as "the battle of the boards." Both teams cruised into the final: The Tar Heels bombed Georgia Tech 77-62 and Maryland; Duke manhandled Wake Forest 88-64 and Virginia.
After the player introductions on Sunday—heights and hometowns, but no SAT scores—it looked like another rout in the making; in the first eight minutes Carolina took a 20-8 lead. Still, the Blue Devils pulled to within four, 39-35, at intermission, and could have taken the lead at the beginning of the second half if Ferry's three-point attempt had not spun off the rim.
That shot was a clue that this was not to be Duke's day. Point guard Quin Snyder and Ferry were each 0 for 7 on three-pointers, and guard Phil Henderson was 2 for 6. "It was like divine intervention," Snyder said after the game. "At least three of mine were in, like, all the way. It was frustrating."
The simmering Krzyzewski-Smith feud almost exploded with 2:28 gone in the second half, after Williams knocked Laettner to the floor as he went up for a layup. As Williams came out of the game for a breather, he ran past Krzyzewski, who yelled, "That stinks!" Smith then jumped up and yelled at Krzyzewski for scolding his player, which is ironic because Smith is famous for talking to opposing players.
Six minutes later the players fueled the dispute when Henderson and Carolina guard King Rice exchanged words and shoves, the last and most flagrant by Henderson, who was called for a technical. Officials called Smith and Krzyzewski together to enact a truce, and the rest of the game was serious hoops.
Though Reid succeeded in outplaying Ferry, he was nearly outshone by a teammate, guard Steve Bucknall. First, Bucknall came up with a three-point play on a drive from the left side that gave Carolina a 60-59 lead. The Blue Devils got even once more, at 66-66, but when Bucknall added another three with 1:46 remaining, Duke was finished.
The Blue Devils had a last chance, when Ferry rebounded Rice's missed free throw with two seconds left and heaved a 75-footer that hit the back rim, stopping Tar Heel hearts for a moment.
"For a second I thought it might go in," Smith said. "If it had, the old man might have had a heart attack."
He was smiling when he said it, but he probably wasn't joking.