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March 12, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There were two big headlines Saturday during the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The first was made by "the kid" - AKA ACC Rookie of the Year Harrison Barnes - who tossed in 40 points to lead North Carolina over Clemson 92-87 in overtime.
The second was made by "the veteran" - AKA ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith - who shrugged off an injured foot from Friday night to start against Virginia Tech and score 27 points to lead Duke to a 77-63 win.
The results created the ACC Championship Game matchup that will be the rubber match between the two old rivals, who split their first two meetings this season.
Despite their obvious heroes in the semifinals, neither team would be in Sunday's title game if it weren't for the performances of some other key players - specifically, Tyler Zeller of North Carolina and the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, for Duke.
Zeller had already written a headline for himself Friday when he took a pass from Kendall Marshall and laid the ball in just before the buzzer to beat Miami 61-59.
Against Clemson, with the Tar Heels down 73-71, Zeller's hook shot with 30 seconds left tied the game. Carolina's defense forced a poor shot by Clemson's Demontez Stitt to send the game into overtime, where Barnes dominated by scoring 14 points.
But the Tar Heels wouldn't have gotten there without Zeller's shot. Call it an old-fashioned hook shot from the 1950s or a jump hook or whatever. By any name, it's deadly.
"That's his go-to, that right-handed jump hook," Marshall said. "I feel like it's going in every time he puts it up. He got the defender on his back, he got (the ball) right where he wanted it and made a big-time play. He's a very old-school player; he doesn't do anything too fancy, he just goes out there and gets the job done."
Zeller said the play was designed for him to be the first option down low with Barnes the second option coming off a screen, but neither could get open initially.
"I just kept working and was able to get the ball and just went to a move that I make a lot," he said "I got lucky and it went in."
As to exactly what kind of shot it was, Zeller laughed.
"People make fun of me for it all the time," he said. "It's awkward, I release it early and some of my coaches say I never look at the basket. I call it a baby hook. I don't know really what it is; I just know it goes in and I can get it off."
Zeller, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds, made another key basket right at the end of the first half, scoring a layup off Marshall's assist to cut the Tar Heels' deficit to 38-28.
"I think we knew that we didn't play very well in the first half," Zeller said. "We knew we had to play a lot better and I think everybody did a great job in the second half coming out playing harder. We finally started getting some things to flow a little bit and we started hitting some shots."
Zeller didn't score in overtime, but he didn't need to because Barnes took care of most of that. When Zeller looked up at the scoreboard, he thought Barnes might have about 25 points; instead, it was 36 at that moment.
"It was very impressive," Zeller said. "He's done it a couple of times like that in practice and it's one of those things that when he's going like that, you've just got to keep giving it to him. I don't know that there's anybody who can guard him at that point in time."
The Tar Heels have spent practically all of their two games in the tournament playing from behind. Zeller said that needs to change.
"We hope so," he said when asked if they remember how to play with a lead. "We know we have to play better and we've got to be a lot better in the beginning of the game. I think we can do that; we've just got to be confident and do it."
Duke's road to the championship has been less dramatic, although by no means easy. The Blue Devils clawed their way through a tough game against Maryland (the 87-71 final score was highly deceptive) Friday and then fended off a Virginia Tech team that never seemed to go away.
The Plumlee brothers had a lot to do with winning the Maryland game, combining for 20 points and 20 rebounds. Miles Plumlee had eight offensive boards, which coach Mike Krzyzewski called "huge."
Their combined stats were down against the Hokies - 13 points and eight rebounds - but both had their moments.
Miles Plumlee scored down low, drew a foul and added a free throw to extend a 10-point Duke lead to 52-39 in the second half. Later, Mason Plumlee had back-to-back dunk shots off assists from Smith and added a beautiful, long bounce pass assist to Ryan Kelly in transition.
Neither, by the way, was surprised by Smith's performance. There was some uncertainty expressed by Krzyzewski Friday about the senior guard's availability.
"That's kind of what I expected," Miles Plumlee said. "I knew he was a tough guy. I didn't see him acting like it was real serious when we got back to the hotel."
Because they often substitute for each other, people may sometimes get the brothers confused or even think they're the same player.
"I can see that happening," Mason Plumlee said. "We get called each other's names all the time, so I wouldn't be surprised if the fans did it, too."
Although both are 6-10 and play the low post, their games are similar but not identical. Miles Plumlee, the older of the two by a year, said he works hard on finishing plays and scoring while Mason is more of a playmaker and passer.
"I think we complement each other well," Miles Plumlee said.
Both are bangers who enjoy the physical play in the ACC.
"You have to in this league," Mason Plumlee said. "People like to play physical and to have a chance of winning you've got to get in there and do that. Rebounding is one of the biggest parts of the game and if we can make that a staple of our team, make that what we do, then it will be good for our team."
Physical play should be the norm Sunday when Duke's big men - Kyle Singler, the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly - battle Carolina's front line of Zeller, John Henson and Barnes.
"They're great players," Miles Plumlee said. "It's a little unique because Zeller really leaks out from the offensive end. Henson is really long; there's not many guys built like him.
"You've got to really adjust how you're playing defense. It's not just your individual matchup; you've got to help each other out on the bigs, talk in transition about who's got who."
In Duke's final game of the regular season, the Tar Heels put an 81-67 thumping on in Chapel Hill. The Blue Devils, who won in Durham 79-73, didn't deny this was the championship game they wanted.
"I'm sure everybody on this team wanted this matchup," Mason Plumlee said. "And now we got it, so we're looking forward to it."
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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