- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Just in time, the Georgia Tech team with Final Four possibilities has reappeared.

Last year’s NCAA tournament finalist was in danger of missing this year’s 65-team field until a late-season run. Based on yesterday’s showing, the Yellow Jackets not only will play in the NCAA tournament, they once more are a national title contender.

Georgia Tech used guard Will Bynum’s 35 points and a smothering defense to edge No. 2 North Carolina 78-75 in the ACC tournament semifinals before 20,301 at MCI Center.

Hours after meeting Duke in today’s championship, the Yellow Jackets figure to gain a high seed from the NCAA selection committee. With guard B.J. Elder back after a nine-game midseason absence with a hamstring injury, Georgia Tech appears at full strength.

“This is not an upset,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said of the victory over North Carolina. “I want to make it clear: This is not an upset. … This team has played in big games, won big games and showed again we can win big games.”

Georgia Tech (19-10) is 6-3 since Elder’s return. The Yellow Jackets have a swagger on defense, trust center Luke Schenscher (15 points, 10 rebounds) underneath and present a diverse offense that netted 32 points in the lane and 21 from 3-pointers.

Hewitt said Georgia Tech simply needed to get its four returning starters together after a series of injuries.

“Once we got everybody back healthy we started playing good basketball,” he said. “We’ve played excellent basketball over the last seven, eight games against some great teams.”

Bynum carried the Yellow Jackets, setting a school scoring mark for an ACC tournament game. He had six of Georgia Tech’s final seven points, including two free throws with 9.6 seconds left for a three-point cushion that forced North Carolina to try a desperate 3-pointer in the waning moments. Bynum made 10 of 21 field goals, including five of 10 3-pointers, and 10 of 12 free throws.

“I was just more aggressive,” he said. “Once I made my first [3-pointer], I felt good. … I had it going. It was my day.”

Conversely, North Carolina (27-4) struggled offensively for the second straight game after escaping an upset bid by Clemson on Friday. The Tar Heels seemed determined to penetrate the Yellow Jackets’ defense but — aside from an early second-half stretch led by center Sean May — couldn’t regularly score underneath. Guards Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants and May each scored 17 points.

“The last two days I feel like I’ve been searching,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “We’re not the dominating team that beats everybody just by playing good basketball. [Georgia Tech] has people getting healthy at the right time, and they played better.”

Said May: “We just came in here fat and happy. We didn’t do things we’ve always done.”

North Carolina no longer appears a Final Four front-runner after two lackluster ACC tournament efforts. The Tar Heels still might gain a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but their defense needs sharpening, and they allowed 25 second-chance points.

“It’s the same battle we’ve been fighting all year,” Williams said. “I’ve never seen a team go to the Final Four or win a national championship that wasn’t good defensively.”

Georgia Tech took a 20-18 lead before stretching it to 42-36 at halftime. But North Carolina finally scored inside at the second half’s start with May getting eight quick points for a 51-50 lead with 14:36 remaining.

“At first I couldn’t do anything right,” May said. “Right before we came out at halftime, I knew I had to play better. For us to win, we had to have an inside presence. I got some easy buckets and offensive rebounds.”

North Carolina’s inside presence didn’t last. Georgia Tech regained the lead for good at 57-55. The Tar Heels managed only a 3-pointer and four free throws over the next five minutes, putting them down 67-62 before McCants and Felton sped up the pace to move North Carolina within 69-68 with 4:57 remaining. However, the Tar Heels didn’t hit another field goal until McCants’ 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.

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