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March 13, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - It's a ritual that a casual observer might not notice.
Every time a Georgia Tech player comes out of a game, he goes down the bench and touches the hand of every assistant coach, player, manager and whoever else might be sitting with them, ending with team trainer Richard Stewart. Then he walks back and takes his seat.
"I'm proud to say I started that a couple years ago," said Yellow Jackets senior D'Andre Bell. "We need every edge we can get, everything to bring us together as a team. At first, I was the only guy doing it, so it kind of looked like I was brown-nosing."
Eventually, other players started following suit. Now it's automatic. When the Jackets are playing at home, the players extend things all the way to the security guards.
Who knows how much it really helps? But it's the kind of thing that can bind a team together in tight times, like Tech faced in the closing minutes of an ACC Tournament semifinal game against NC State Friday night.
The final two minutes were as frenzied as any played during the tournament so far in the Greensboro Coliseum. As tensions rose, bodies hit the floor, players pushed and shoved, officials separated would-be combatants and the Jackets finally emerged with a 57-54 victory to send them into Saturday's championship game against Duke.
Bell was in the middle of a lot of it. Play was stopped briefly when official Mike Eades pulled Bell and the Wolfpack's Scott Wood apart and gave them a short, stern lecture.
"I can't repeat most of what (Eades) said," Bell said, smiling. "It wasn't anything illegal. It was all innocent."
Bell got the best of that exchange a moment later when he drove the baseline, drew a foul on Wood, then calmly hit two free throws to extend Tech's lead to 49-46.
Thirteen seconds later, State's Javier Gonzalez, after a turnover, stopped a Tech fast break by grabbing the jersey of Derrick Favors and pulling him to the floor for an intentional foul. Favors walked away, although other players from both teams bumped bodies before order was restored.
"I didn't want to retaliate," Favors said. "I knew if we won I would probably be suspended for the next game against Duke. I didn't want to do that to my team, so I just sucked it up and walked away."
Favors hit the first of two free throws and then scored on the inbounds play when Tech retained possession, stretching the lead to 52-46.
Bell continued to be a calm presence in the face of the storm. Fouled with 42 seconds left, he swished both free throws to push the lead back to six points. As the clock ticked down, he got a hand in Wood's face that resulted in an air-ball 3-point shot, although State got the loose ball and a 3-pointer by Gonzalez trimmed the lead to 55-54 with 12 seconds remaining.
Bell took the inbounds pass and was immediately fouled. Stepping to the line with 11 seconds left, his first attempt swished through and the second rattled around a bit but dropped through. Those two points meant the Pack had to try a 3-pointer to tie, and the desperation sho by Gonzalez was well off the mark.
So, in a game when both teams were playing for the third straight day and shots were often hitting the front of the rim, indicating tired legs, Bell knocked in 6-for-6 at the line in the final 1:42.
"I was at ease," he said. "They all felt good, each one of them."
Sometimes the pressure of late-game situations can cause a good free throw shooter, which Bell is, to freeze up. Not this time.
So now Bell gets to play out the one scenario he has always wanted, a chance at an ACC championship. He missed the 2008-09 season when he was diagnosed with a spinal condition that required surgery, then elected to return for a fifth year.
"This is why I came back," he said. "I want to hang a banner, and we haven't had much success doing that, other than one saying we were in the NCAA tournament."
Besides his late free throws, Bell contributed significantly on defense. Wood had burned Florida State for six 3-pointers Friday night, but managed only two against Tech, one when Bell was on the bench. Sometimes Bell had to fight through h a maze of screens to stay with Wood.
"I did everything I could to keep him from getting off a 3-point shot," Bell said. "He hit one on me that I'm still upset about."
Much will be made about the Jackets' task against Duke, having to win their fourth game in four days.
"I don't want to lie to you guys," Bell said when asked how his legs felt. "Mind over matter. They will feel OK."
Bell is 22, four months older than teammate Zachery Peacock.
"Man, I'm fine," Peacock said. "As soon as the adrenaline gets going for the game tomorrow, I'll forget all about it."
Would he admit it if his legs felt tired?
"I probably wouldn't," Peacock said with a laugh. "I've got a little too much pride for that."
To sophomore Iman Shumpert, getting ready physically is the least of Tech's worries.
"We've just got to make sure we've got a lot of energy mentally and get emotionally involved," he said." I don't think it's going to be too much physical. If you can't get up for Duke you can't get up."
The Jackets split with Duke during the regular season, winning 71-67 in Atlanta and losing 86-67 in Durham. Tech's players believe the rubber match being in Greensboro will help.
"Right now it's kind of like a neutral site," Peacock said. "Even though we are in North Carolina, we won't be as pressured as we are at Durham.
"It's all about focusing. I feel like as team captains, me and D'Andre, we'll get the guys together and start focusing on Duke and what we have to do to win that game."
Whatever happens, Bell expects to meet any adversity head-on. Whether it's key free throws, defense, rebounding, setting up his teammates, scoring or scrapping for loose balls, he'll have just one thing in mind.
"I want to be tough," he said. "I want to show everybody I'm the toughest player out there."
And when a sub comes in for him, he'll remember to slap hands all the way down the bench.
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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