Duke reaches ACC tourney title game
Nolan Smith refused to let a toe injury stop him. Virginia Tech couldn’t do it, either.
Smith scored 27 points a day after jamming his toe, and No. 5 Duke claimed a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game by beating the Hokies 77-63 in the semifinals Saturday.
”At this stage,” Smith said, ”no injury is going to hold me back from playing.”
Kyle Singler added 13 points and 11 rebounds and Seth Curry had 10 points for the second-seeded Blue Devils (29-4).
The two-time defending league tournament champions and reigning national champs shot 47 percent and kept the Hokies at arm’s length throughout the second half to avenge a late-season loss and set up a third meeting with bitter rival North Carolina in the title game Sunday.
”We were matched up for the regular-season championship, and it’s the two best teams again,” Smith said.
Malcolm Delaney, who’s second to Smith in the ACC scoring race, finished with 19 points on 4-of-14 shooting for the sixth-seeded Hokies (21-11). They were just 2 of 12 from 3-point range and couldn’t get closer than 10 in the final 14 minutes.
”Going into the game, I felt we had earned confidence,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. ”We had beaten this team. But we needed to play well, not just play hard. I thought we played really hard. Unfortunately, we didn’t play as well tonight.”
Erick Green added 17 points, including a layup over Curry that pulled Virginia Tech to 41-35 with just under 18 minutes left. Singler followed with a jumper to start the 11-2 run that pushed Duke’s lead into double figures to stay.
Without question, the main story line focused on Smith, the ACC player of the year. His status was in question until a few minutes before tipoff because he injured the second toe on his left foot late in Duke’s victory the night before against Maryland. X-rays showed no broken bones, and coach Mike Krzyzewski said Smith was walking ”fairly well” at a short team meeting at about midnight.
”Once we knew that it was more of a jammed toe, we felt that he would be OK,” Krzyzewski said.
When he woke up Saturday, Smith said ”it felt brand new.” After testing the toe during warmups, he took his familiar place in the starting lineup and almost immediately went to work.
He scored 16 points in the first half and finished 8 of 16 from the field in the highest-scoring ACC tournament game of his career. The senior captain keyed an early run that gave the Blue Devils some breathing room, then essentially put the game away with consecutive alley-oops to Mason Plumlee in the final 8 minutes while once again resembling what Curry called ”the Nolan that we all know.”
Singler matched a school record by playing in his 144th consecutive game while Curry, the son of former Virginia Tech sharpshooter Dell Curry, atoned for a five-foul, no-point night in Duke’s 64-60 loss in Blacksburg, Va.
”Any time you play bad against a certain team, you want to go out and make up for it,” Curry said.
They teamed to help Duke – which hasn’t lost in the league’s postseason event since the 2008 semifinals – move one step closer to its 10th conference tournament title in 13 years and ACC-record 19th overall. Standing in the way are the sixth-ranked Tar Heels, who beat them 81-67 a week ago in Chapel Hill to claim the top seed in this tournament.
The Tobacco Road rivals are meeting in the championship game for the 11th time but first since Duke claimed the 2001 title by beating North Carolina 79-53 in what also was the last time the top two seeds reached the ACC title game.
”I’d rather look ahead to tomorrow without concentrating on the past,” Krzyzewski said. ”The thing that makes this game is, it’s for the ACC championship. … This tournament means a lot to us, and we play it in that manner, and we’ll try to play it in that manner (Sunday) and hopefully have a chance to win.”
Victor Davila had 11 points for Virginia Tech, which has endured a topsy-turvy past two weeks since knocking the Blue Devils from No. 1 with that memorable upset.
Back-to-back losses to bubble teams to close the regular season added to the Hokies’ desperation entering the league tournament, but they picked up two wins to reach the semifinals for the third time and perhaps played their way to their first NCAA berth since 2007. Playing roughly 16 hours after an emotionally draining quarterfinal win over Florida State – a game in which the injury-depleted Hokies used only six players – they were denied their first trip to the ACC title game.
”If people watched our team with the limited numbers that we had and everything that we went through, they would know we’re one of the top teams to get into the tournament,” Delaney said. ”But I won’t believe we’re getting in until our name is called. I’m not going to go to bed thinking we’re in or whatever. I’m going to think the worst, and hopefully we’ll come out with the best tomorrow.”