CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The lights went out at the Charlotte Coliseum early in the second half of yesterday's opening Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal between top-ranked, top-seeded North Carolina and fifth-seeded Virginia.
When they came back on nearly an half and hour later, it was the Cavaliers who went out. Out of sync. Out of contention. And, finally, out of the tournament, the result of a 74-56 victory for the Tar Heels.
Leading by only four points, 43-39, with 16:36 remaining when the building went dark, North Carolina (28-3) was plugged in when power was restored. The Tar Heels scored 14 of the first 16 points after the 29-minute interruption and blew out Virginia (19-9) for the third time this season.
North Carolina's 11th straight victory, which was marred by an injury to junior point guard Derrick Phelps with less than two minutes remaining, put the Tar Heels into today's 3 p.m. final against sixth-seeded Georgia Tech, a 69-61 winner over seventh-seeded Clemson.
"We can't be accused of wearing people down, but we were sharp the first few minutes after the break," said Tar Heels coach Dean Smith, who will try to extend his own record by winning a 12th straight ACC tournament championship.
"We were ahead. It was not like we did that on purpose so we could talk."
On the surface, it might seem as if the Cavaliers should have benefited more than North Carolina by the snowstorm-induced break. After all, Virginia has nowhere near the depth of the Tar Heels. But sophomore point guard Cory Alexander, about the only Virginia player who was effective after the break, had a different perspective.
"I think they benefited by it more, because they have guys who are used to sitting longer and then come in and perform at a high level right away," said Alexander, who led all scorers with 22 points. "We don't have guys used to doing that. Not that we were sitting around joking, but after a half hour, I think we kind of lost our focus."
Said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, "When we came back to the locker room, during the break [Georgia Tech coach) Bobby Cremins said to me, 'This is going to help you.' But somebody else said that it could hurt our emotion, and they were right. We weren't in control before, but they [the Tar Heels] really established themselves afterward."
Especially center Eric Montross, who was held to only two points and no rebounds in the first half. He scored two of the first three basketsfor the Tar Heels after the teams returned and took control of the boards. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Junior forward Brian Reese led North Carolina with 16 points.
North Carolina will likely play today's final without Phelps, who came down hard after being fouled by Virginia's Jason Williford after going up for a drive with 1:52 to play. Phelps landed on his back and was carried off the floor on a stretcher. Phelps, who was complaining of numbness in his thighs, was taken to Carolinas' Medical Center for X-rays.
"We're certainly going with the idea that he won't be playing," said Smith.
Even without Phelps, the Tar Heels will be considered overwhelming favorites today. They have swept the Yellow Jackets by 13 and 11 points.
Regardless of the outcome today, North Carolina is assured of being aNo. 1 seed in the East Regional when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced tonight. The Tar Heels, who are considered the favorites to win the national championship, will likely open Thursday in Winston-Salem.
"People say that it's easier [in the ACC tournament] for Carolina because of all the upsets, but I'm glad our kids don't believe that," said Smith, whose team won it here two years ago. "They have to go out, play and play well."
After yesterday, the Tar Heels wouldn't even mind another power outage.
And the way it was snowing here last night, they might get it.
NOTES: George Lynch, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds against Maryland Friday, was one of 11 from the field against Virginia. He finished with four points, but had 11 rebounds. . . . It marks the 21st time that the Tar Heels have reached the final.