Things got off to a shaky start in the Verizon Center on Wednesday – numerous clock malfunctions caused several delays in the opening game’s first few minutes. But once we moved past the technical difficulties, there was an afternoon of thrilling rivalries awaiting at the ACC Tournament. In the day’s opener, it looked more like an old Big East Tournament game, as Pittsburgh beat Syracuse 72-71 in an exciting game that featured huge runs by each team. A matchup of two of the more traditional ACC programs followed for the second act, as Duke and Tobacco Road rival NC State staged an old fashioned shootout, which was eventually won by the Blue Devils, 92-89. Here are quick takeaways for each of the Wednesday afternoon combatants.
Cameron Johnson’s 24 points off the bench sparked Pittsburgh to victory over Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. (Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports)
Pittsburgh (21-10): The Panthers completed the season sweep of Syracuse and should now feel good about their chances for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Jamie Dixon received great production from his bench today, particularly redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson, who hit four three-pointers and scored a career-high 24 points. Dixon has definitely cracked the code of the Boeheim zone, as he improved to 15-6 against the Orange in his 13 seasons on the Pitt sideline. Up next for the Panthers: top-seeded North Carolina, who handled Pittsburgh rather easily (85-64) in Chapel Hill in the only meeting between the two teams this year.
Syracuse (19-13): The Panthers seem to just have Syracuse’s number, as the Orange have now dropped five consecutive meetings with Jamie Dixon’s club. Syracuse did a better job keeping Pitt off the glass this afternoon than they have in the past; the Panthers grabbed just 12 offensive boards after allowing them to grab 49 percent of their misses in the two previous meetings. The Orange made six of their eight second half three-point attempts, but even that wasn’t enough to complete a frantic comeback. After dropping this game, the Orange fall to 9-10 against ACC competition for the year. A sub .500 conference mark is not necessarily a disqualifier from NCAA at-large consideration, but it does mean that Jim Boeheim’s squad will be sweating it out until the field is announced Sunday night. Their ultimate postseason fate is anyone’s guess.
Duke (23-9): The Blue Devils once again won with outstanding offense, despite allowing the Wolfpack to score nearly as freely as they did. Duke trailed 53-50 at the half in the 2nd highest combined first half score in ACC Tourney history. For the game, both teams shot over 50 percent from the floor. Turnovers were also scarce – Duke finished with just four, while NC State only gave the ball away six times. Looking ahead, we would expect Thursday afternoon’s Duke-Notre Dame quarter-final matchup to display similar levels of offensive efficiency. Neither squad is known for playing with defensive intensity, and they each possess offenses rated in KenPom’s national top 10. Mike Brey has had recent success against his coaching mentor Mike Krzyzewski, including a wild 95-91 Irish victory this year in Cameron Indoor.
NC State (16-17): The Wolfpack’s season comes to an end with a third close loss to Duke this year. Much like the first meeting between the two (Jan. 23 in Raleigh), NC State was on fire in the first half and refused not go away at any point, even when Duke appeared to be in solid control in the second half. Anthony “Cat” Barber capped off a tremendous junior season with 29 points and seven assists. As was often the case this year, Mark Gottfried’s club was just not good enough defensively this afternoon, as they allowed the Blue Devils to score 1.35 points per possession. The Wolfpack should be a deeper team next year – two of their most talented players are sitting out this year, and high profile recruit Dennis Smith will join the mix. The big offseason question is easy: Will Barber forgo an early pro career to join Smith in a super talented backcourt?