CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coas Conference tournament are supposed to be a mere formality, with the lower seeds mostly first-round fodder for the favorites.
But not this year.
For the first time in the tournament's 40-year history, the second, third and fourth seeds all went out in the opening round. The elimination of Florida State, Duke and Wake Forest cleared the path for top-ranked, top-seeded North Carolina to win the title tomorrow.
The day of upsets at the Charlotte Coliseum ended late last night, when Chris Collins missed a three-point shot at the buzzer, giving sixth-seeded Georgia Tech a thrilling 69-66 victory over the third-seeded Blue Devils, the tournament's defending champions and the nation's two-time defending champions.
It marked the first time since 1987 that Duke (23-7) went out in the opening round. Coupled with last Sunday's 14-point loss at North Carolina, it doesn't exactly give the No. 8 Blue Devils a lot of confidence going into this year's NCAA tournament. Last night's defeat also cost Duke a shot at a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.
"You could tell Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] was really disappointed with our group," said Duke point guard Bobby Hurley. "It's been the same story all year. We've been able to play really well at times, but at other times we've really struggled."
After falling behind by as much as 61-51, with less than seven minutes remaining, the Blue Devils twice tied the score, the second time at 66-66 on a layup by Cherokee Parks with 1:47 left. But James Forrest, who led all scorers with 27 points on 13-of-15 shooting, hit a short turnaround with 1:09 to play to give Georgia Tech (17-10) the lead.
The Yellow Jackets had several chances to wrap things up, but missed several free throws down the stretch. Senior center Malcolm Mackey, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds, missed a pair with 34 seconds left but came back to make one of two with 5.7 seconds left after Thomas Hill missed an ill-advised three-point shot for Duke.
"We really get up against Duke because we have so much respect for them," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "That's as well as we can play."
The victory pushed the Yellow Jackets into today's semifinals against seventh-seeded Clemson, which earlier in the evening upset second-seeded Florida State, 87-75. The Tar Heels, who routed Maryland, 102-66, will play fifth-seeded Virginia, a 61-57 winner over fourth-seeded Wake Forest yesterday afternoon.
Clemson 87, Florida State 75
Clemson's victory marked the first time in 27 ACC tournament games that the Tigers had beaten a higher seeded team, and only the fifth time in the tournament's history that a seventh seed won an opening-round game.
"I think our theme has been that adversity will become a strength," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, who has been rumored since last summer to be on the verge of a forced resignation following this season. "A lot of teams would have folded. Today was a great day. Tomorrow will be another opportunity."
The last time the Tigers beat a higher seed was against Duke in 1962, the only year Clemson has ever reached an ACC final. The Tigers will have another chance to do that. It marks the first time that the sixth and seventh seeds will meet in a semifinal.
"Our goal is the NCAA tournament, and we still have a chance," said Ellis, whose team needs to win the ACC tournament to qualify.
For the Seminoles, it was a disappointing ending to their second straight second-place ACC season. While Florida State is assured of a spot in the NCAA tournament field, the Seminoles will now have to regroup. As well as Clemson played, Florida State played just as poorly and got beat at its own fast-break game.
"They really looked extremely well prepared, we did not," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, whose Seminoles had beaten the Tigers twice during the regular season. While Devin Gray was having one of his best games of the season -- he hit seven of his first eight shots and was 10 of 14 overall for 23 points -- another former Baltimore star was having his worst. After helping keep Florida State (22-9) close in the first half with 12 points, senior guard Sam Cassell was shut out in the second half and fouled out with 2:57 to go.
Virginia 61, W. Forest 57
After going from eight points behind midway through the second half to four points ahead, 57-53, with 3:39 left, Wake Forest (19-8) didn't score again. Rodney Rogers missed the front end of a one-and-one with 55.3 seconds left with the Cavaliers ahead, 59-57.
Sophomore guard Cory Alexander led Virginia with 20 points. Though the Cavaliers shot only 40 percent on 22 of 55 from the field -- a typical afternoon for the ACC's next-to-worst shooting team -- the Demon Deacons were a dismal 19 of 52. Rogers, who along with Trelonie Owens led Wake Forest with 15 points, was five of 15 from the field.
"We talked a lot before the game about we needed to do to win," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones. "It was a lot of talk about respect and the national broadcast, which stated that North Carolina had to go through Wake Forest to get to the finals. This certainly gave us momentum."
Said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose team scored only one basket in the first nine minutes of the second half, "We as a team, and me as a coach, are very disappointed. We put a lot of effort into preparation, a lot of thought. There is a certain amount of frustration in losing in the first round for the fourth straight time [as a coach]."
(At Charlotte Coliseum)
Maryland 76, N.C. State 55
North Carolina 102, Maryland 66
Virginia 61, Wake Forest 57
Clemson 87, Florida State 75
Georgia Tech 69, Duke 66
North Carolina vs. Virginia, 1:30
Clemson vs. Georgia Tech, 4