While semifinal Saturday at the 61st ACC Tournament in Greensboro didn’t produce any buzzer beaters, 30-point performances, or jaw-dropping upsets, it did produce a pair of competitive, exciting games, as well as a great championship matchup for Sunday.
Here is a look at both semifinal games:
#1 Virginia 51, #5 Pittsburgh 48
The Cavaliers advanced to their first ACC Tournament final since 1994, as they try for their first title since 1976, defeating Pittsburgh after Justin Anderson blocked James Robinson’s three-point attempt in the closing seconds. The game was closely contested all the way through, with the largest lead being eight for the Cavaliers with 9:50 remaining, before Pitt closed to within one before Anthony Gill’s clutch free throws just before the game-clinching block. Virginia had a very balanced attack, as Joe Harris led the team with 12 points, Malcolm Brogdon had 10, Anthony Gill had 10 off the bench, and Akil Mitchell had 8 points and a team-leading 8 rebounds. Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson both had 15 for Pitt, and Zanna added 9 rebounds after his 21 rebound performance on Friday. Virginia held Pitt to just 11 points scored on field goals outside of 5 feet, with the Panthers shooting 4-for-25 on such shots. The Cavaliers become the eighth top seeds in the last nine years to advance to the championship game.
#3 Duke 75, #7 NC State 67
The second semifinal featured a back-and-forth duel between ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren for the Wolfpack and ACC Freshman of the Year Jabari Parker for the Blue Devils. The highest two scorers in the conference were the highest two scorers in this game, with Warren scoring 21 and Parker 20, but it was Parker’s Blue Devils who scored more overall and got the win. Warren was just 4-for-13 after halftime, which was part of an overall trend for the Wolfpack, who shot 67% in the first half and just 36% in the second half. After Duke led by one at half, with NC State’s shooting struggles, the Blue Devils were able to pull away, eventually leading by as many as 12. That lead stayed between 8 and 12 points for the final 10 minutes, with State getting within 6 only once the clock was all but gone. Parker’s scoring effort was aided by 16 points from Rasheed Sulaimon, 14 from Rodney Hood, and 12 off the bench, including a trio of threes, from Quinn Cook. Warren was helped by Wolfpack freshmen Lennard Freeman and Anthony Barber, who added 13 and 12, respectively, off the bench. Duke advances to their 31st ACC Tournament title game, and they are 19-11 in their previous appearances.
#1 Virginia vs. #3 Duke, 1:00 p.m.
Ironically enough, in the age of conference expansion and realignment, the championship game of this first-ever 5-day ACC Tournament will be between two of the conference’s remaining seven charter members, Duke and Virginia.
This should be an excellent matchup between two teams that were consistently the best all season long (Syracuse was good, but not consistent). For starters, each team has two players honored among this year’s All-ACC teams, with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood for Duke and Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon for Virginia each being honored.
In addition, this is a great coaching matchup, between the legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in his 34th season at Duke, going for his 14th ACC Tournament title, and one of the nation’s best up-and-coming coaches, Virginia coach Tony Bennett, in his 5th season with the Cavaliers.
These teams met once in the regular season, on January 13 in Durham, when Duke won 69-65. Until last Sunday, the loss to the Blue Devils was Virginia’s only ACC loss. Duke led the whole game before a furious rally, which included an 11-0 run, gave Virginia a one-point lead in the final minute, and a Rasheed Sulaimon go-ahead three clinched the win for Duke in the closing seconds. That was Duke’s 26th straight win at home, a streak that has since been stretched to 33 games.
Virginia isn’t a team that will put up big numbers, but they are certainly a well-oiled machine. The saying “defense wins championships” applies to this season’s ACC regular season, because Duke’s offense, which is the best in the conference, led them to a 14-4 conference record, but Virginia’s defense, which allows fewer points than any other defense in the nation, led them to a regular season title.
However, the ACC does not officially recognize its regular season champion. The only champion recognized is the team who cuts down the nets about 3:00 on Selection Sunday. And Virginia hasn’t done that since 1976. Duke has done it 19 times, including 15 since the Cavaliers’ last title. That might be motivation enough for Virginia.
Virginia senior guard Joe Harris, who was a first team All-ACC preseason selection, has had reduced numbers from last year’s very productive season. But the team has won, and Harris has been a big part of that success, as he has made sure the team remains balanced on both ends of the floor and he helps his teammates to score, particularly Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted second team All-ACC this postseason. Even with Harris’ “down year”, he was voted third team All-ACC by the media, and second team by the coaches.
As the season progressed forward, this Virginia team had more and more of a feeling of destiny to it, and that was never felt more than it was two weeks ago when they defeated Syracuse by 21 at home to clinch the top seed in the ACC Tournament. While Duke has played better than Syracuse as of late, I still think Virginia’s team is very solid all-around and has the toughness, both physically and mentally, to win a title.
Duke may also be due; they have won 5 straight championship game appearances, dating back to a 2004 loss to Maryland, and 10 out of 11 dating back to a 1998 loss to North Carolina.
Virginia 60, Duke 56.
For what it’s worth…
My first round record: 2-1
My second round record: 3-1
My quarterfinal record: 4-0
My semifinal record: 2-0
Tournament Total: 11-2