<
>

In the end, it had to be Duke vs. UNC

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- No other conference has two programs that have to be at the top to carry the league.

Kentucky has had company the past decade in the SEC from Florida, but Big Blue Nation is the only SEC fan base the league needs to have a sellout. Kansas carries that burden in the Big 12. The Pac-10 has never traveled well. The Big Ten is too deep and does not have one school that dominates. The Big East can have a number of choices to fill New York's Madison Square Garden.

But put Duke and North Carolina in the ACC tournament title game, especially in Greensboro, and you're guaranteed a tremendous atmosphere.

These two programs are clearly above the rest of the conference. It just seems right that the two will meet for the title Sunday at Greensboro Coliseum with a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament at stake for the winner.

Duke and Carolina are the last two national champs and stunningly haven't met in this title game since 2001 and will meet for only the 11th time in the title game overall. They are again primed to be contenders for the national championship, too.

"I was looking forward to it," said Duke senior forward Kyle Singler on the possibility of facing Carolina in the title game. "Anytime you take a loss, you want to get it back and now we've got that opportunity in front of us."

North Carolina did its part by escaping with a quarterfinal win over Miami on Friday after being down 19 points. Earlier Saturday, North Carolina was down 10 at halftime to Clemson, came back and tied the game at the end of regulation and then won in overtime by five. Carolina is the first team in ACC history to win multiple games after overcoming double-digit deficits at halftime.

Duke took care of Maryland in Friday's quarters behind Singler's 29 points. ACC player of the year Nolan Smith didn't play in the final six-plus minutes because of an injured second toe on his left foot. He received a shot to numb the toe Saturday and was out on the court for warm-ups.

Smith scored 27 points in the 77-63 win over Virginia Tech.

Smith knew he was going to play against the Hokies and he's certainly going to be on the court for the title game against the Tar Heels.

"It means a lot to play against that program," Smith said. "We just played them in a regular-season championship game and lost at their place and now we're playing them in Greensboro. It's going to be an amazing atmosphere between the two best teams in the ACC."

North Carolina beat Duke last Saturday in Chapel Hill to split the season series but more importantly win the ACC regular-season title. Smith scored 30 in that game. Guard Seth Curry scored 20 while Singler was held to eight. Mason Plumlee was ineffective, fouling out after not scoring in 18 minutes. Meanwhile, UNC bigs Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for 24 points and 17 rebounds. Superstar freshman and ACC rookie of the year Harrison Barnes scored 18.

"I've got to stay on the floor and play smarter," said Plumlee of going against the Tar Heels. "This is going to be a great game. I'm looking forward to it. I know I was hoping for it and I know our coaching staff was hoping for it. This is the matchup we wanted and I know the fans do too."

Curry said the Blue Devils were beaten badly down low against the Tar Heels. To beat UNC on Sunday, they must have more balance, as the Tar Heels have at least four options offensively.

And it helps that there won't be any prep for this game with the images of playing Carolina so fresh in their minds.

"We know their tendencies," Curry said. "There won't be a long meeting at all."

The ACC did show its depth this weekend, with Clemson crushing Boston College and Virginia Tech-Florida State going down to the buzzer, to possibly put at least three of those four teams in the field on Selection Sunday.

But the two best teams throughout the season were clearly Duke and North Carolina. Upsets occur and Carolina was fortunate to make Sunday's final after Miami and Clemson were each within one stop of preventing this title matchup. But it didn't happen and the Tar Heels found ways to win. They had the tougher bracket than Duke, even as the No. 1 seed. But it doesn't matter now. Both made it to Sunday -- the way it should have been in this league, in this season. This gives the ACC the final it desperately needs to create a crazed atmosphere in Greensboro.