From the beginning of the season the Tar Heels' lofty rankings—the Associated Press, for example, picked them No. 1—seemed far-fetched, even though they went on to achieve a 23-7 record. Three starters from last year's NCAA runner-up team had gone off to the NBA, and except for another splendid ACC freshman, Al Wood, less talented players had moved up to take their places. Even though North Carolina had won the regular-season ACC championship by beating Duke 87-83 in a thrilling game at Chapel Hill the previous Saturday, the Heels were not a clear tournament favorite. And they were plagued by the same injury bugaboo that hit them in postseason play a year ago. For the second season in a row Coach Dean Smith's starting center watched the tournament from the end of the bench on crutches. Last year it was Tom LaGarde who had undergone knee surgery; this time it was sophomore Rich Yonakor. To make matters worse, star Forward Mike O'Koren was playing with a swollen ankle. Said Smith, "He's only at 80% capacity, but at that, he's better than most."
Smith was being somewhat optimistic, because compared to O'Koren's regular-season averages of 17.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, his woeful performance against the Deacons—10 points, three rebounds and five personal fouls—put him at about 55% of capacity.
That left center stage for Ford, who in seven previous ACC tournament games had averaged 22.7 points and had pumped in a career-high 34 in the big victory over Duke. Even another 34 wouldn't have been enough against Wake. Griffin (18 points and 12 rebounds) and McDonald (21 points) ripped the defenseless Tar Heels underneath, and Coach Carl Tacy left the floor with his fourth victory over Smith in their last six meetings.
This made things easier for Duke. The Blue Devils, 20-6 during the season, opened the tournament Wednesday afternoon with an 83-72 decision over Clemson. Dennard, who the week before, in an effort to improve his 9.6 scoring average, had taught himself to shoot the ball from in front of his face instead of over his head, hit 10 of 14 shots and finished with 22 points. But it was Banks who turned in the game's—and the tournament's—most dazzling play when he made a one-hand grab of a lob pass, cupped it for a split second, just as his Philly pal George McGinnis would have done, and then guided the ball into the basket. All in defiance of gravity.
Wednesday evening's first game, pitting Maryland against N.C. State, was a bummer. The two teams plowed through three overtimes and somehow made it so unexciting that Banks and his teammates got up from their seats and sauntered off to bed between the first and second overtimes, though the winner would be their semifinal opponent the next day. What they missed was a 109-108 Maryland upset and some delayed theatrics by King, who scored 14 of his 21 points during the overtimes. It was King's two free throws with nine seconds left that finally decided a game in which there had been 55 turnovers and 23 time-outs.
The ordeal took its toll when Maryland met Duke on Thursday night. King was in pain because of back spasms and appeared for only a few minutes. Center Larry Gibson, who had played all 55 minutes while scoring 27 points against the Wolfpack, went 2 for 14 from the floor. This, along with double-figure scoring by all the Blue Devil starters, produced an 81-69 Duke victory.
In Wednesday night's other first-round game, Wake warmed up for its encounter with North Carolina by clobbering Virginia 72-61. The Deacons exploded to a 20-5 lead and permitted the Cavaliers only three first-half baskets. Lamp, one of the league's leading scorers, never did get untracked and hit just one of eight shots from the floor. It was well after midnight when the game ended, but outside the arena scalpers were still at work, getting as much as $80 for a ticket to the finals. As the fans filed out of Greensboro Coliseum one man held up a sign that read: NEED SATURDAY TICKET. WILL ROOT FOR YOUR TEAM.
Duke's Foster broke up an awkward silence at Friday's off-day press conference by saying, "They said it would be snowing in Greensboro before Foster would have a team in the ACC finals.... Well, I apologize for the weather." But neither he nor Tacy was eager to offer a scouting report on his opponent or to critique the season series between the two teams. Duke held the edge 2-1, having beaten the Deacons 97-84 in the Big Four tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum when five Blue Devils were in double figures and then in Durham, 81-72, as Gminski, Banks and Spanarkel scored 21, 21 and 19. Wake Forest's 79-60 victory had been facilitated by the fact that Gminski was sitting on the bench in a ski sweater, suffering from a sprained toe. "With Gminski, Duke might be—probably is—the best team in the ACC," Tacy had said after that game.
Tacy's suspicions turned out to be all too true. While Gminski played tight and rushed his shots in the first half of the title game, Wake Forest looked like a winner. But Gminski was to end up as the tournament's second-leading scorer with 59 points (McDonald had 61), despite first-half totals of six, two and seven points. And when the second half began, he and Banks roared into high gear.
With their team still trailing by five points after an initial exchange of baskets, Gminski had a four-point flurry and Banks put in a couple of acrobatic 18-footers that set off a 17�-minute explosion by the Blue Devil frontcourt men during which they scored 32 of their team's 40 points. Gminski knocked one in off the glass and Banks made a pair of free throws and took a pass from Gminski for a layup. Banks got a lefty tip-in, Gminski converted two free throws. Banks fed Gminski for an easy basket. ...And so on, until they had given Duke an all but insurmountable 79-69 lead. During the surge Banks and Gminski out-scored Wake Forest's entire team by seven points.