UNC, Duke advance to ACC semifinals, but with concerns

Top seeds North Carolina and Duke showed up at Philips Arena Friday, injecting a few shades of blue, higher stakes and some swagger into the ACC tournament.

They came away with some apprehensions, though, while advancing into the Saturday’s semifinals.

The top-seeded Tar Heels rolled past Maryland but watched first-team All-ACC forward John Henson go down with a wrist injury, and No. 2 seed Duke survived Virginia Tech with an out-of-sorts offensive effort minus junior forward Ryan Kelly.

Together, they set up a fairly predictable final ACC tournament four, but with some questions surrounding the top two seeds. The semifinals will feature four of the top five seeds as No. 5 N.C. State takes on No. 1 North Carolina at 1 p.m., and No. 3 Florida State beat Miami to set up the 3 p.m. matchup with No. 2 Duke.

The Blue Devils are already playing with Kelly in khakis and crutches with a right foot sprain and had Miles Plumlee in foul trouble throughout Friday night’s game. And now North Carolina has to wonder if Henson will be able to play Saturday despite a sprained left wrist.

“Sometimes when you have injury like we did with Ryan another kid can step up,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Josh Hairston, who’d played two minutes in Duke’s previous three games, held his own defending the post in his 17 minutes and defensive specialist Tyler Thornton came up with a career-high 13 points after launching a career-high 16 shots.

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said his game plan was to make Thornton beat them, and he did. His 3-pointer with 3:29 left, only his third make in 13 attempts, gave Duke an 8-point cushion. The Hokies came within four with 1:08 left, but Erick Green missed a floater and Plumlee punched the ensuing loose ball ahead to Austin Rivers for a traditional 3-point play. Duke escaped 60-56.

“I’m really proud of our team because we didn’t shoot the ball well, but we didn’t let that dictate our defense,” said Rivers, who was 1-for-6 from 3-point range, while Duke was 5-for-26. “In our last game against North Carolina we struggled with our shot and had lapses on defense.”

Only one team other than North Carolina or Duke has won the ACC tournament in the past 15 years, but a neighbor of theirs has designs of its own. Fifth-seeded N.C. State knocked off No. 4 Virginia to make not only its case for the NCAA tournament but to erase any debate at all.

Saturday will be the first time N.C. State and North Carolina have met in the ACC tournament semifinals since 1985 at the Omni, before it was imploded to make way for Philips Arena.

The Wolfpack claimed their fourth win in 12 tries against an opponent ranked in the top 50 in RPI, but three of those came after Texas and Miami moved into the top 50 on Thursday. They also might have put Virginia on the bubble in the process.

“The surest way to be an NCAA tournament participant is to win your conference tournament, and that’s what we’ve come to do,” said N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried. “Now that’s a tall order. We understand that. I won’t think that our players will have any problem whatsoever being excited to play tomorrow.”

Sitting to his left on the dais Friday evening, and nodding throughout the “excited to play” part of the comment, was sophomore C.J. Leslie. His 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go with 14 rebounds set up that chance.

He worked Virginia standout Mike Scott down in the low post for a lay-up to put the Wolfpack up 62-58 with 2:38 to play. N.C. State held on from the free throw line from there to beat the depleted Cavaliers 67-64.

Leslie draws another tough assignment in North Carolina’s frontcourt on Saturday, but he could have it a little easier if Henson can’t go. The ACC’s leading rebounder and shot blocker injured his wrist on a hard foul in the first half of the Tar Heels’ 85-69 win over Maryland.

Henson initially tried to stay in the game, and later re-entered for 40 seconds, but he left for good after struggling to grip or catch the ball. X-rays taken shortly thereafter were negative. The injury is to his left wrist, which is Henson’s dominant hand in basketball, even though he’s naturally a right-hander.

“What we’d like to do is see how he feels about it tonight, but he could not grip the ball or catch it,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after the Tar Heels’ win Friday afternoon. “If he starts feeling better about doing that, then I think he’ll have more of a chance.”

Not that the Tar Heels needed him much against Maryland, even after post man Tyler Zeller left with four fouls with 9:57 left. Point guard Kendall Marshall dished out 12 assists to break Craig “Noodle” Neal’s ACC single-season assist record and made it look all too easy to beat Maryland down the floor.

The Terrapins got 30 points from the ACC’s scoring leader Terrell Stoglin and set the tone physically with some hard fouls, but the one that led to Henson’s injury was the only real damper Maryland put on the Tar Heels’ day.