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The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last week was a three-day thriller with enough suspense to fill a shelf of Agatha Christies. There was a scoreboard that played defense, a comeback that turned into a miracle and another that ended in disaster. Finally, there was a new address for last year's heroes. North Carolina State doesn't live here anymore.
North Carolina evicted David Thompson and the Wolfpack in a ferocious final game that ended the best tournament in memory. All the games at Greensboro Coliseum were good to the last drop and added fresh perk to the ACC's claims as the country's best and best-balanced conference.
The winning Tar Heels needed two overtimes and a cramp in Thompson's style, not to mention a lot of good ideas from Ford, to win the tournament. North Carolina firmly believes that if Jerry can run Uncle Sam's business, then Phil can direct the four-corner offense, the semi-stall the Tar Heels like so much they employ it even in nonstalling situations.
Freshman Guard Phil Ford was the tournament's MVP, and his leadership was the clincher in North Carolina's first two tournament victories, overtime affairs against Wake Forest and Clemson. Then, in the 70-66 defeat of the defending NCAA champion Wolfpack, he controlled the action with style and verve.
The championship game resulted in a woeful ending to Thompson's spectacular college career. He had exhausted himself in North Carolina State's dramatic win over Maryland in the semifinals the night before, when he had to be helped from the floor with painful leg cramps. Against North Carolina he played mostly on hope. "It's an empty feeling to go out a loser," he said.
As Thompson exited, a new crop of stars entered. Freshmen played a major role each night. State's Kenny Carr and Clemson's Skip Wise won games in the final seconds, but neither was as important nor as impressive as Ford. He was the Tar Heels' catalytic-converter, wheeling in the middle of the four corners and making the free throws when the exasperated opposition fouled him. He made 26 of 30 foul shots, usually with the icy fingers of pressure on the back of his neck, and averaged 26 points a game.
North Carolina's victory was also a personal triumph for its innovative coach, Dean Smith. His young team looked moribund when it finished last in the Big Four tournament two months ago. And it seemed to be in the same condition in the opener of last week's action, before coming back from eight points behind with 50 seconds left against Wake Forest, getting a little help from a long Deacon pass that nicked the scoreboard suspended over the floor.
The Tar Heels won that game 101-100 and, along with State's 91-85 defeat of Virginia and Clemson's 78-76 win over Duke in the other opening-night games set the tone for the tournament. The widest margin of victory in any game was six points, and the average margin was three.
Going into the tourney four ACC teams were ranked among the top 15 in the polls, and the other three were capable of beating the leaders, as Wake Forest and Duke had shown earlier. So it was no surprise that tournament tickets were such status symbols they might have been turned out by Gucci. Each school told tales of being offered large sums for seats, usually under the guise of gifts to the athletic department.
On Thursday ticketless fans were patrolling the streets of Greensboro at dawn, holding up their fingers in a V signal that meant "I need two." The more inspired among them carried signs, including one fellow who resorted to rhyme. "I'm not a picket, I need a ticket," went the first verse. Another fan played on sympathy, raising an arm wrapped in a sling. But ACC tickets apparently are a better cure than plaster. When he showed up for the games, the man had no sling and was clapping with two hands.