Who would say this tournament doesn’t matter? Try finding someone in the Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday afternoon who would tell you this is all just a big “cocktail party.”
Not only was Saturday’s content potentially Maryland’s last ACC game ever, but every member of this particular UNC team was fighting to win their first tournament—of any kind—ever. Put those two storylines together in a packed house still very much alive from an earlier match up which involved about eight future pros (Miami vs. NC State), and you had one of the most electric non-Tobacco Road ACC Tournament matchups in a long time.
And those storylines don’t even take into account what makes the tournament, the tournament. You really have to be there. The context of each game changes in a way that you can’t sense on TV. When you get that many different fans, going to that many different games, it leads to dynamics you can’t predict.
Many a Wolfpack fan stayed for the Carolina game after their team fell to Miami. Would they pull against Maryland since they recently jilted the ACC? Or would they pull against their rival Tar Heels?
And for all the Carolina fans that came early to watch the Wolfpack play the Hurricanes, would they pull for NC State (assuming that would be the easier matchup on Sunday) or would they cheer against their hated enemies from Raleigh?
You never know until it happens, and it’s different every time. Throw in an eclectic mix of basketball fans from different cities, states, and demographics and what you have is a fantastic atmosphere for sports. You just have to be there to get it.
And we haven’t even discussed the impact this has on the athletes themselves.
The tournament dynamic affects different players in different ways. With some guys, the adrenaline makes them focus and play out of this world — see Childress, Randolph. But with others? That same adrenaline and over-dose of cortisol pumping through their veins can cause fatigue — see State, Florida.
Leonard Hamilton’s team was so un-FSU-like some reporters wanted to know if they had eaten a tainted meal before the game. UNC played well, but won by 21 because the Seminoles simply ran out of gas. They gave up. And while you might think Leonard Hamilton wouldn’t allow such a thing (let’s just say Hamilton is known for his sternness), the head coach seemed to understand that his players were just exhausted from having played the late game the night before — much like UNC would have to before playing Maryland.
Now switch to PJ Hairston, who clearly seems to have the opposite reaction to the stress of a weekend tournament — to say the least. Hairston is a Greensboro native and drained his first four shots without so much as touching the rim — all bombs from downtown, all with a long and lanky Florida State defender in his face. He had decided to shoot all four before he even got the ball.
But with about four minutes to go on Friday night, a freak play led to Hairston lacerating the webbing (cringe) of his left hand. Thank God it was his non-shooting hand, because it took eight stitches just to stop the bleeding. Odds are every human on the planet would be just fine going the rest of their lives without ever hearing the term “torn webbing.” Ouch.
It must have been adrenaline that got PJ on the court Saturday because he again nailed another three just moments into his second game as a Tar Heel in his hometown’s biggest stage.
The Tar Heels as a whole would need every ounce of that same energy so they could pull out the win. With a 13 point lead and the game seemingly in control, things started to go downhill fast. And for one reason: fatigue.
Up until 12 minutes to play, Carolina had gone TWENTY-FIVE minutes without a single turnover, and led by double digits. But that ended quickly. They would have five over the coming minutes and were soon in a fight for their team’s survival
The Maryland fans were loud, and doing everything they could to keep the reputation of sports fans that live near or above the Mason-Dixon Line (you know, mean, nasty, and ever-creative with their name-calling). The atmosphere was electric.
Down the stretch however, it was possibly the least likely of candidates who took over. PJ’s adrenaline had worn off, and for once #PJBeShootin wasn’t streaming across every Twitter timeline in NC Media. It was the freshman, Marcus Paige, who made two outrageously poised and difficult shots to seal the deal.
If you’ve ever met Paige, be it after a game in the locker room or on the street, you can just tell the kid has “it.”
Point guards have to have “it.” It’s the gene that somehow tells Ty Lawson exactly when his team needs him to take over. It’s the instinct that tells Ray Felton, “OK, I haven’t scored all game, but my team needs me now.” It’s the gut instinct that told Shane Larkin against NC State that, “Alright, State is making a run, I feel this slipping away, now it’s time for my back-breaking dagger.”
All great point guards have it. And even though Marcus isn’t a great point guard yet, if you have “it” then you’re always just a couple steps away from making that leap.
And because of Paige, the Tar Heels are just a few moments away from an ACC title.
A title which feels different than others. The Tar Heels have been to three straight finals, and five of the last seven, but they’ve only won two of those — both with Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough in the starting lineups.
This one matters. And it couldn’t come against a harder opponent. Miami is big, fast, long, experience, and most of all… hungry. This same team crushed the Tar Heels last month and has won both contests this year.
It’s going to be a hell of a ball game tomorrow in Greensboro. And it sure as hell matters.
You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net
All Chapelboro.com Hoop it Up photos provided by TODD MELET