Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shouting Distance

It’s the standard advice given to any movie character about to do a prison bid: Find the biggest guy in the joint and pick a fight, thus earning the respect of the most hardened criminals in the crossbar hotel.

Perhaps Rick Barnes was subscribing to that theory during his first season as an ACC coach at Clemson in the 1994-’95 season. The Tigers’ two regular-season games against the North Carolina Tar Heels were cut-throat, physical matches. Then came the teams’ battle in an ACC quarterfinal, a prison-yard game if there ever was one in the conference tournament.

The seeds of animosity had been fertilely planted in the Tar Heels’ 83-66 victory at Clemson. Barnes was given the boot after vociferously voicing his opinion to officials about the 32 fouls called against his team, as opposed to the nine called on Dean Smith’s team. At their next slugfest, UNC waxed the Tigers, 66-39, to run the Tar Heels’ record against Clemson to 41-0 in Chapel Hill, N.C. After the game, players from both teams lobbed accusations about dirty play.

Clearly, the Tigers didn’t have the horses to play with a UNC team that boasted All-Americans Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Clemson never stood a chance in the ACC quarterfinal from the moment Wallace took a textbook post-feed from Dante Calabria for a wide-open dunk punctuated by Wallace’s trademark primal scream.

Clemson tried to make up for the talent disparity by goading the Tar Heels with physical play. Almost every time Wallace hit the boards, rugged Clemson forward Iker Iturbe was there to plant a forearm.

Indeed, Iturbe was involved in the large majority of skirmishes. UNC point guard Jeff McInnis stared daggers at Iturbe after a hard foul in the first half, and referee Frank Scagliotta had to step between the players to negotiate the peace. With 10:49 left in the game and Clemson hopelessly behind, Iturbe and Wallace got mixed up on the blocks. Wallace was thrown to the floor, and when no foul was called, the enigmatic forward’s objections were duly noted with one of the 437,322,345 technical fouls on Wallace’s permanent record.

Smith sat Wallace for the rest of the game, but Iturbe continued to wreak havoc on the court. With UNC leading, 69-53, Iturbe delivered a hard shot on a driving Stackhouse. Smith leaped off the bench to say something to Iturbe. Barnes immediately called time out and summoned Smith to a powwow at the scorer’s table with the officials.

Barnes grew up in Hickory, N.C. Like every hoops-obsessed child along Tobacco Road, he surely was nourished on stories of Frank McGuire, Bones McKinney and Vic Bubas. Smith had won his first ACC tournament title when Barnes was 12 years old and was as close to a deity as humanly possible in the Bible Belt.

That said, Barnes wasn’t about to have an opposing coach talking to Clemson players. The new kid in the ACC started screaming directly in the face of a living legend. It looked like the tête-à-tête was going to devolve into fisticuffs before Scagliotta and fellow official Rick Hartwell sent the coaches back to their respective benches.

Barnes was the only one hit with a technical, and after Stackhouse hit 2 of 4 free throws there was still three minutes left in the game and a threat of violence hanging in the air of the Greensboro Coliseum. A couple of possessions later, Stackhouse was hit with a technical for pushing Clemson guard Bill Harder after battling for a rebound.

The Tar Heels now had their sights trained on embarrassing the Tigers. Reserve forward Pat Sullivan hit a three-pointer with 20 seconds left that gave UNC its final margin of victory, 78-62. Then UNC stole the ball and wanted to put an exclamation point on matters with McInnis attempting an alley-oop to Donald Williams in the closing seconds. Harder gave Williams a little undercut, and the ball sailed out of bounds as time expired.

But the tension didn’t end. Sullivan angrily confronted Harder about trying to hurt his teammate, and Shammond Williams sprinted off the UNC bench to enter the fracas. Soon the court was muddled with bench players, assistant coaches and assorted flunkies pushing and grabbing. Interestingly, Barnes and Smith were forgiving and forgetting at the post-game handshake. As soon as they realized what was happening, the coaches hustled their teams off the court, ending one of the most tension-filled games in ACC tournament history.

Barnes and Smith buried the hatchet (and paid fines of $2,500 apiece) in a summit at ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan’s house. There were the usual platitudes about things being said and done in the heat of battle. Fans aren’t as quick to forget, however, and Barnes was stuck with the label of the thuggish ACC coach until he left for Texas after four years with Clemson.

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