- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Georgia Tech junior point guard Jarrett Jack looks around before the opening tip and sees four senior teammates. Duke point guard Daniel Ewing is in a class by himself as his team’s lone senior, though he does have four juniors as wingmen.

It is the time of year when experience often separates national title contenders from talented but green pretenders, and the Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils are falling back on their Final Four backgrounds.

“With games like this, we are able to adjust and know how to win,” said Georgia Tech senior guard Will Bynum, who had 35 points in the Yellow Jackets’ 78-75 semifinal yesterday win over second-ranked North Carolina, which has much less big-game seasoning. “A lot of players are gone [to the NBA] before they are seniors. We are pretty lucky to have five seniors. It makes a difference.”

And it appears the Yellow Jackets, left for dead several weeks ago during a turbulent season, are rounding into postseason form. Senior shooting guard B.J. Elder is healthy again after missing nine ACC games, and Georgia Tech has left behind a disappointing regular season — 8-8 in the league and 17-10 overall.

“We stuck with it and knew how good we were,” 7-foot-1 senior center Luke Schenscher said.

Georgia Tech is now playing for the best possible seeding in the NCAA tournament. After sixth-seeded Maryland beat Duke in last year’s final, the Terrapins earned a No.4 seed.

The fifth-ranked Blue Devils reached today’s title game thanks largely to Ewing, who finished with 14 points on 4-for-7 3-point shooting and had five assists. While J.J. Redick’s 35 points headlined Duke’s effort, Ewing hit three big 3s as the Blue Devils erased an eight-point second-half deficit.

The 6-foot-3 guard from Texas cut N.C. State’s lead to 53-52 midway through the half with a 3-pointer. Redick gave Duke the lead for good with a 3-pointer on its next possession.

“J.J.’s performance was one of the best ever,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Daniel’s was right there. He had to guard [2003-04 ACC Player of the Year] Julius [Hodge, 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting]. He is playing the best basketball of his senior year.”

Ewing has assumed the senior leadership role that belonged to Chris Duhon last season and previously was held by players like Shane Battier. Ewing played alongside Jason Williams and Carlos Boozer as a freshman, and now his is the veteran voice.

“We really follow in his footsteps in the way our team goes,” Blue Devils forward Lee Melchionni said. “He plays with a lot of chutzpah. When those guys kick the ball out and he might miss [a shot], he is right there again. It takes a lot of guts to shoot shots like that. We know he’s got that. Other times, he knows when to pull it back out and just take care of the ball. He is a smart player who knows the game.”

Ewing, Redick and Shelden Williams are the only current Duke players who had major roles on last season’s Final Four team, but Georgia Tech is chock full of seasoning.

Four starters are back from last season and Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, was the sixth man a year ago. Center Schenscher, forward Anthony McHenry and Elder joined junior Jack as returning starters. Guard Isma’il Muhammad, who is missing the tournament with a foot injury, is another savvy senior capable of changing a game.

“These seniors are not [merely] seniors,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who is building a power in his fifth season in Atlanta. “They are guys that know how to win big games. They weren’t seniors last year, and that’s the core that won big games. They weren’t seniors two years ago, when we went to the third round of the NIT. They have a lot of heart and play well together.”

The Yellow Jackets’ rise is even more impressive considering big man Chris Bosh left after only one season in 2002-03 to become an NBA lottery pick.

And now Georgia Tech is finally getting healthy and showing last season was no fluke. It is the time of year for senior moments. The Blue Devils get their share from Ewing, while the Yellow Jackets have one of the country’s most savvy squads.

“This is just the point where we play our best basketball — tournament time,” Bynum said. “A lot of guys here have played in a lot of big ballgames. It means everything to have our seniors out there leading the way and our young guys following their examples. When you have guys who have been in those positions and know how much each possession counts, it does mean a lot.”

Just ask the nine ACC teams that will be watching today.

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