CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- James Forrest felt a little left out comin into this year's Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament. The Georgia Tech sophomore had been left off both of the ACC's first two all-league teams dominated by North Carolina, Duke and Florida State.
The powerful 6-foot-7 forward took care of that here this weekend. He began the tournament Friday by knocking out third-seeded, No. 8 Duke, the ACC's defending champion, with a 26-point, 13-of-15 shooting performance. He finished it by knocking off top-seeded, top-ranked North Carolina in yesterday's championship game.
With 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, Forrest led the sixth-seeded Yellow Jackets to a 77-75 upset victory at the Charlotte Coliseum or, as somebody called it, "The Dean Dome West." Forrest silenced the Tar Heels and a sellout crowd of 23,532, most of them rooting for North Carolina (28-4).
"I definitely came in with a vengeance,"said Forrest, who was a unanimous MVP selection after scoring 82 points in his team's three victories. "I felt I had something to prove."
So did Georgia Tech (19-10). The Yellow Jackets had a schizophrenic regular season, one that included a six-day stretch in which they beat top-ranked Duke in Atlanta and inexplicably lost at home to the College of Charleston. They came into the tournament precipitously close to being on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Although his team's erratic play wasn't the reason for Bobby Cremins thinking seriously about taking the job at his alma mater, South Carolina, it did drive him crazy. And it led him to believe that Georgia Tech had about as much chance to win here this weekend as it did to endure a late-winter snowstorm. Guess what happened?
"The other two teams I thought had a chance," said Cremins, referring to his 1985 and 1990 ACC tournament championship teams that had more experience, depth and consistency than this year's squad. "If you had been coaching this team this year, you wouldn't have thought they had a chance. I'm kind of shocked. Maybe I should consider a new job every year."
While the victory was certainly surprising -- it was only the fourth time in 40 years that a No. 6 seed won the championship -- it was not without one overriding factor: the bruised tailbone suffered Saturday by North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps, whose status could affect the Tar Heels' chances in the NCAA tournament as well.
Without Phelps, whom Cremins called "the best defender in our league," North Carolina was vulnerable at both ends of the court. With Georgia Tech's Travis Best beating the press and the traps, the ball went inside to Forrest time after time. The Yellow Jackets hit 25 of 60 from the field and 23 of 26 from the foul line. Not bad for the eighth-ranked free-throw-shooting team in the league.
"I told our team before the game that we have no control over injuries," said Cremins, whose team beat Clemson, 69-61, in Saturday's semifinal. "I knew they [North Carolina] would respond. They have a lot of talented players. We knew North Carolina would be every bit as good; that's their program."
But the Tar Heels missed Phelps dearly. Along with the defensive lapses that resulted from Best's penetration and Forrest's short jumpers and dunks, the offense became stagnant. North Carolina, which saw an 11-game losing streak come to anend, shot a dismal 39 percent from the field (28 of 71) and helped give the Yellow Jackets a 41-37 halftime lead by committing 12 of its 15 turnovers.
Still, North Carolina had a chance, first to blow away Georgia Tech and then to come from behind. But after taking a 50-45 lead six minutes into the second half, the Yellow Jackets hung in and eventually built their lead to 72-66 with 1:10 left and 74-69 with 48.4 seconds to go. After Brian Reese's three-point shot cut it to two with 38.6 seconds left, Forrest hit one of two free throws a little less than eight seconds later to push it to three.
"I thought we had a chance," said Reese, who carried the Tar Heels down the stretch, finishing with 18 of his 24 points in the second half. "But we couldn't make the shots when we had to."
After hitting two straight threes, Reese had a chance to tie the gamewith about 20 seconds to play. But his jumper was long, and the ball was tipped out to Georgia Tech's Drew Barry. The Tar Heels missed the opportunity to foul Malcolm Mackey, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, and fouled Martice Moore instead.
The freshman forward made a pair with 16.3 seconds to go. Following two missed three-point tries by Donald Williams, and two rebounds by Eric Montross, the Tar Heels scored at the buzzer on an inconsequential three-pointer by Williams. His poor shooting (four of 18, three of 12 on threes) was as much a factor as Phelps' absence.
But North Carolina didn't use the injury as an excuse for its defeat.
"I don't think the outcome would have been any different if he had played," said Montross, who had 19 points and 18 rebounds, but scored only four in the last 19 minutes.
Said Tar Heels coach Dean Smith, who was denied his 12th ACC championship: "I think anyone knows the importance of Derrick Phelps. But this will do down in the record books as Georgia
Tech beating Carolina. No asterisk saying 'no Derrick Phelps.' "
Just too much James Forrest.
(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 74, Virginia 56
Georgia Tech 69, Clemson 61
Georgia Tech 77, N. Carolina 75