Seventh-seeded Virginia Tech enters the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against top-seeded Duke in an unusual mindset.
While the Hokies (22-12) aren’t sure if they’ve locked up an NCAA Tournament berth, they do know this: With a win Saturday night over the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (28-5), they would be ACC tournament champions for the first time and their place in the NCAA would be assured.
This is uncharted territory for Tech. The Hokies are in the ACC final for the first time since they joined the league in 2004-05.
“I’ve got a very good basketball team,” Tech coach Mike Young said. “We had some struggles early in the year, but we’re playing pretty good basketball now at the right time.”
This, of course, is business as usual for Duke, which has won more ACC tournaments (21) than any school in the conference, including 15 under retiring Mike Krzyzewski, who will coach his final ACC game on Saturday night.
After Duke’s 80-76 semifinal win over Miami on Friday, Krzyzewski tried to shift the spotlight to his players.
“I’m trying to get away from all that. It’s really too much,” the longtime coach said of the attention he’s received. “I’ve had it numerous times. It’s all theirs, and I’m going to try to do my best to help them in their season.”
Duke had to play well on Friday to advance. AJ Griffin (21 points, seven rebounds) and Paolo Banchero (18 points, 11 rebounds) made a combined 15 of 22 shots from the floor.
Then, down the stretch, Wendell Moore Jr. emerged. In the final six minutes, he scored eight of his 17 points. When the Blue Devils were wavering after Miami took the lead, 62-61, with 6:10 left, Moore answered with a defining sequence.
First he made a jumper. Then, at the other end, he blocked a shot, collected the loose ball and took it for a fast-break layup and a 65-62 lead. Then in the final minute, Moore made 4 of 4 free throws to help the Blue Devils ice it.
“A couple weeks ago, I said I wish they would be smarter,” Krzyzewski said. “The last two games they’ve been very smart.”
Duke will run into a red-hot Tech squad that is coming off tournament wins over Clemson on Wednesday, second-seeded Notre Dame on Thursday and third-seeded North Carolina on Friday.
The Hokies’ emerging star, Darius Maddox, who made a 3-pointer at the buzzer of overtime in Tech’s opening-round win over Clemson, scored a career-high 20 points in a 72-59 win against UNC, making 4 of 5 shots from beyond the arc.
Defense paved the way for Tech as it held formidable UNC to 36.7 percent shooting from the floor. The Tar Heels made just 3 of 26 (11.5 percent) from beyond the arc.
“That’s been drilled into us,” Tech’s Keve Aluma said. “If we can guard them and keep them at a low score then, the offense comes easier and everything starts to click.”
Duke won the lone meeting between the teams this year, 76-65 on Dec. 22. Tech had an eight-point lead in the second half before going cold from the perimeter. After the break, the Hokies made just 1 of 9 shots from distance.
Aluma had 25 points and 10 rebounds while Banchero scored 23 points to lead the Blue Devils.