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March 9, 2012
By Bill Hass
ATLANTA (theACC.com) - There were questions raised, but not necessarily answered, for the teams from North Carolina that filled the first three semifinal berths in the ACC Tournament.
The final semifinal berth went to the winner of Thursday's late game between the schools from the state of Florida -- Florida State.
Did NC State, in beating No. 4 seed Virginia 67-64 at Philips Arena, do enough to earn an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament?
Will North Carolina be able to get the same kind of quality minutes from its bench if John Henson can't play Friday as it did in beating Maryland 85-69?
And can Duke, after grinding its way to a 60-56 win over Virginia Tech without Ryan Kelly, play a little more smoothly without him in the semis?
Let's start with the Wolfpack. Whether or not State is now safely in the field depends on who answered the question.
"I think we deserve to play in the NCAA Tournament," said coach Mark Gottfried.
Guard C.J. Williams agreed his team clinched a spot.
"We won the game, so we've done what everybody said we needed to do," he said. "But we're not done. We want to win another one to make it even less of a discussion of whether we should be in or not and more of a discussion of what seed we should be."
Scott Wood, however, wasn't ready to declare the Pack in just yet.
"Our mindset is on the bigger picture," he said. "If we get to Sunday and can win (the championship) then, we don't have to worry about anybody voting or saying we should be in or we should be out."
If the deal isn't sealed yet, a win over No. 1 seed North Carolina in Saturday's 1 p.m. game would probably do it. The Tar Heels beat State twice during the regular season and its big front line presents a problem.
"We don't have any special tricks going up against them," said State post player Richard Howell. "We lost to them the first two times but tomorrow is going to be a different day.
"Their front line, they're long and they're quick. They're not one of those long, slow teams. But we feel like we can get it done."
The victory meant a lot to State's players. C.J. Leslie heaved the ball high in the air at the buzzer as his teammates celebrated.
"It's one of those things where we've been scratching and clawing all year, trying to get over that hump," Wood said, "and it was kind of a relief that we were finally getting there."
Howell, a junior who had never made it out of the first round, was even more direct.
"Just to advance through the first and second rounds is a huge stepping stone for our program," he said.
A lot of things have to go right for State to win Friday, and a similar effort from C.J. Leslie would be a big help. He totaled 19 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal against the Cavaliers.
And Leslie made one of the game's biggest defensive plays when he ripped the ball away from Virginia's Akil Mitchell and kicked it out to Wood, who nailed a 3-pointer for a 58-49 lead with six minutes left.
"He's been playing like that the last few weeks," Williams said. "He's been playing with a high level of energy, talking defensively and getting after it offensively, making hustle plays. We're at our best when he's playing like that."
The Tar Heels won't know until sometime Friday if Henson will be available to face the Wolfpack. He fell hard on his left hand in the first half and tried to return but couldn't grip or catch the ball. X-rays showed no break in his left wrist, but it was extremely sore.
"Up until the result of the X-ray I was really concerned," Henson said. "It was a tough pain but X-rays were negative, fortunately, so hopefully it's going to get better. We're going to ice it and see what happens."
Most of Henson's minutes were picked up by freshman James Michael McAdoo, who scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
"He's able to face up and slash to the basket and I think he showed that on several occasions," said point guard Kendall Marshall. "I won't say it's a big difference in losing something; it's just that they're two different players."
Two other Tar Heel freshmen contributed significantly off the bench. Guard P.J. Hairston scored nine points in his best offensive showing in an ACC game. And point guard Stilman White guided UNC through the final 3:24 of the first half after Marshall drew his second foul. The Tar Heels even gained four points on their lead in that stretch.
Duke had announced before the tournament that the 6-11 Kelly, who suffered a sprained ankle in practice early this week, would not play at all. If anyone had lingering hope, it was dispelled by Kelly showing up on crutches.
The Blue Devils sputtered on offense, which was due in large part to Virginia Tech's feisty defense. But Duke was able to get a few transition baskets on run-outs, with Seth Curry twice lobbing to Mason Plumlee for dunks.
On a crucial late play, Austin Rivers outran a Hokie to a loose ball at midcourt, drove for the layup, drew the foul and hit the free throw. That pushed Duke's lead to 58-51 with 15 seconds left and put the game out of reach.
Duke compensated somewhat for Kelly's absence by playing four guards a lot and using 6-7 Josh Hairston for 17 minutes.
"It's a lot different because we run a lot of our offense through (Kelly) with handoffs and ball screens and stuff like that," Curry said. "I'm sure it will be a lot better tomorrow. We'll have a better flow and kind of know what we want to run with our lineups."
Hairston scored four points and grabbed three rebounds, but his contributions went beyond that.
"He did a great job, especially defensively," Curry said. "He's just a tough body down there. He got some big rebounds and made some big plays for us."
Hairston said he didn't go into the game trying to fill Kelly's shoes.
"I just wanted to come in and do more of what I usually do," he said, "which is bring energy, play defense, rebound and talk to my teammates. I need to take my shots when I have them and that's what I did. But more so on defense I want to be that presence, I want to be physical and just let my presence be known."
Chances are, Duke may need more of that in its 3 p.m. Saturday game.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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