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|Sidney Lowe is riding the good luck of his bright red blazer.|
Delight and disbelief are rising with every upset. Nostalgia, too.
Suddenly it's 1983 all over again. Members Only jackets are chic, The Clash is huge and North Carolina State is conjuring up March magic. And there's Sidney Lowe orchestrating a startling run through an ACC tournament being played in a tradition-flouting locale far from Tobacco Road.
Lowe was wearing a red uniform during the '83 tourney in Atlanta, a senior point guard on his way to being named MVP of an event that also included guys named Jordan and Sampson. Here in Tampa, where Lowe is swiping the sideline spotlight from guys named Krzyzewski and Williams, the coach will not take the court without his riotously red, 46-long sport coat.
Mr. Blackwell would not approve of the look. Wolfpack Nation wholeheartedly approves.
The blazer-turned-talisman was shipped off for a third straight day of dry cleaning on Saturday, to be readied for one more shock-the-world effort Sunday against North Carolina.
"We'll see if we can get it done one more time," Lowe said.
The Redcoat Revival has become the story of Championship Week. Lowe's 10th-seeded Wolfpack, 18-14 overall and losers of 11 ACC games, have piled up 125 miraculous minutes here at the St. Pete Times Forum.
They stunned Duke in overtime, then Virginia, then Virginia Tech. The 72-64 elimination of the Hokies was perpetrated on what would have been the 61st birthday of the late Jim Valvano, the man who led the Wolfpack to the '83 national title as college basketball's ultimate Cinderella.
How's that for karma?
As the latest upset wound to a conclusion Saturday, assistant coach Monty Towe leaned over and whispered in Lowe's ear, "Happy birthday, Jimmy V."
|Jim Valvano, who would have turned 61 on Saturday, would enjoy this Wolfpack team.|
Since returning to his alma mater as head coach last spring, Lowe has paid more than one visit to Valvano's grave site in Raleigh. When I talked to Lowe last week on the phone, he referred to V in the present tense, speaking with genuine affection for his former coach. Even before Towe whispered in his ear, Jimmy V was on Lowe's mind in the final seconds.
"He would be very proud of these guys," Lowe said of Valvano. "Their passion and the way they've been playing."
V would be very proud of his former point guard, too. All he's done in his first year in Raleigh is take the lowest-seeded team ever to the final of this august event. A No. 10 seed had never won a game in the ACC tourney before, much less three.
V would no doubt love the player meetings the Pack have held before every game this tournament, too. He'd love to hear Gavin Grant's description of the message before the Pack played Duke on Thursday night: "Don't come out and let anybody punk you." Might not be soaring oratory, but it's solid playground pragmatism.
Lowe gave his players a history lesson before this tourney began, telling them about the '83 team's run. But even he wasn't fully prepared for what has happened here.
"I had no idea we'd be playing in the ACC championship game, but I told them that special things happen in this tournament every year," he said. "Whether it's a player who emerges and becomes a great story or it's a team that does something special. I told them, 'Why not be that team?'"
Now all that remains between the new-millennium Cardiac Pack and the NCAA Tournament is an Everest climb against the Tar Heels on Sunday -- a tired and gimpy underdog taking on a talented and deep big dog.
With a threadbare bench and indispensable point guard Engin Atsur limping on a tender hamstring, State would appear to have no chance. Of course, most people thought State had no chance in '83 when it shocked fifth-ranked North Carolina and second-ranked Virginia to win that ACC tournament.
"The way we're doing it is very similar to what a lot of our fans saw in 1983," Lowe said.
In '83 NC State muddled through the season with 10 losses, affected by the injury to star guard Derek Whittenberg. This season, NC State muddled through with 14 losses as Atsur missed a dozen games.
Both entered this tournament on the outside of the Big Dance. Both have played without fear and with full gusto. Both have survived an overtime (against Carolina in '83, against Duke this year). Both have benefited from opponents' errors (Wake Forest threw the ball away at the end of the '83 quarterfinal, and Virginia Tech was just pathetic from the foul line on Saturday -- a common them in the '83 team's NCAA Tournament run).
|Even on a bad leg, Engin Atsur is leading NC State.|
Yet Lowe correctly stated that what this team is doing trumps the '83 ACC title.
"It's amazing," he said. "In this tournament and in this conference, to have the wins they've had, theirs are much bigger than ours. Much bigger."
State is a younger team and a bigger underdog this time around -- it was a No. 4 seed in '83. And it will be faced with playing one more game than in '83.
Three wins in three days is hard. Four in four is harder. Only 12 teams have ever done it in conference tournament action.
But if NC State can control tempo against the racehorse Heels and execute its offense the way it has the past three days, who knows?
"They're such a good passing team," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "Probably the best passing team in the league. They're almost like a European team in a way. They space it, pass it and cut."
The Wolfpack shot a blazing 61 percent against Duke, including 100 percent in overtime. They shot 53 percent against Virginia, including a scalding 74 percent in the second half. They shot 53 percent against the Hokies. For the tournament they're hitting 43 percent of their 3-point shots and 76 percent of their foul shots -- both excellent numbers.
The good shooting has been a by-product of getting great shots. And Lowe gets a lot of credit for that. Given Lowe's pedigree as a pro coach, his reliance on calling set plays and exploiting matchups has been evident in this tournament.
Lowe called a dazzling variety of set plays in the second half against Virginia on Friday, never once referring to a play sheet before doing so. Almost all of them worked, as the Pack ripped through the Cavaliers for 53 second-half points and erased a 14-point halftime deficit.
Saturday, Lowe focused on creating and exploiting mismatches in the half-court. That put the ball in the hands of long wingmen Grant and Courtney Fells quite a bit, and they responded with 20 and 16 points, respectively.
It helps to have excellent post passers in Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley, who have combined for 21 assists in this tournament. And Atsur is the glue guy who gets State into its offense and keeps his young teammates composed. Even on one leg, he's vital.
"He's giving it all he's got," Grant said of Atsur. "For us to come out and not compete in games of this magnitude, it would be wrong to send him off like that."
Of course, every great underdog story has to have at least one unlikely hero. That would be senior Bryan Nieman, a former walk-on who played previously at Winthrop and Gulf Coast Community College.
Nieman has taken four shots in this tournament, three of them from 3-point range. He hasn't missed yet. His six points against Virginia on Friday were the most he's scored since mid-December, and his 3 early in the second half helped squelch a Hokies rally.
In fact, State's repeated ability to build up a lead and then withstand every Virginia Tech response was evocative of an '83 Valvano staple: run-hold-run. Make a run, hold on through your opponent's rally, then make another run.
Last spring, when NC State was seeking a replacement for Herb Sendek and being turned down by everyone but the local weatherman, I poked fun at the school's search. It's now time to say that athletic director Lee Fowler got the right guy -- and next year could really be something in Raleigh.
But why get ahead of ourselves? Better to enjoy the Redcoat Revival and its inspirational ending to this season first.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.