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Mike Lopresti | | February 9, 2015

A day in ACC Land

Duke 2-1 Fourth-ranked Duke stormed back to top No. 2 Virginia, handing the Cavaliers their first loss.’s Mike Lopresti is on the road, taking in seven games among nine teams throughout the heart of ACC country.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- If you're looking to know what it's like in the Atlantic Coast Conference, you could look at the latest AP Top 25. It's the conference with five members in the top 13, from Virginia to Duke to Notre Dame to Louisville to North Carolina.

The crowds could tell you what it is like. Five of the brethren are in the top 22 in the nation in attendance.

The coaching profiles could tell you what it is like. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, North Carolina's Roy Williams and Louisville's Rick Pitino might has well have their own Mount Rushmore. Among them: 3,417 victories and they represent four of the five current college basketball coaches that are active Hall of Famers.

But to really get the idea, why don’t we visit?

Welcome to eight days in the ACC, starting with a Saturday doubleheader.

Although its not a traditional ACC matchup, Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh can still pack an arena.

The students showed up before dawn in 14-degree temperatures, lining up to get into the Petersen Events Center. A sign, "The Oakland Zoo,’’ is over their entrance, signifying both the name of the neighborhood and the general demeanor of the student section.

Inside, nearly everyone in attendance was draped in blue and gold -- with one young scholar wearing the head of a unicorn. Oakland Zoo president Nick Brenner, a junior from New Jersey, sat in his front row seat and described their devotion.

"My freshman year, we stood outside six hours in a hail storm to get into the Louisville game," he said. "Then we lost."

He mentioned how hard the Pitt crowd can be tough on visitors. There was the time that Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams had been in trouble for allegedly shoplifting a bathrobe. You can probably guess: The Zoo showed up wearing bathrobes.

A cheat sheet is handed out to Zoo members before every game that gives insight and possible ammunition, on visiting players. Among the gems on the Irish this day: Jerian Grant has "and uncontrollable temper." And Steve Vasturia "does not want to be called Fredo from 'The Godfather.’ You know what to do.’’

"We go with what we have,’’ Brenner said. Alas, it is not foolproof. Louisville stopped by the previous week, and the Zoo had gotten wind that Cardinal Terry Rozier has a fear of squirrels. "We had a bunch of squirrel cutouts,’’ Brenner said. "But then he went off against us and scored 26 points.’’

Pitt 2-1 Pittsburgh threw a monkey wrench in the ACC race with a win against No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday.
This is Pitt’s second year in the ACC, which means the Oakland Zoo is a new conference colleague of a certain vaunted student section from Durham.

"They have a long history," Brenner said of the Cameron Crazies. "But our attendance is a lot better than theirs and we have a crazy atmosphere better than theirs. They have a great student section but we think we have the best one in the country.’’

According to Brenner, Public Enemy No. 1 for the Oakland Zoo is Syracuse, with rancor left over from their Big East days. Not Duke or North Carolina? Pitt is too new to the ACC, he said. "They haven’t done anything to us yet.’’

Advice to anyone who sits next to the Zoo: Take Dramamine. The incessant jumping up and down makes the temporary bleachers seem like a row boat in rough seas.

In the end Saturday, the Oakland Zoo left happy, and so did the Panthers, who eased the pain of a three-game losing streak and unusually modest 13-8 record by beating Notre Dame 76-72. There is no place like home for Pittsburgh. The Panthers are 203-29 in 13 seasons in the Petersen Events Center, where all 228 regular season games have been sold out.

The Panthers blew an eight-point lead in the last three minutes, with nine consecutive points from Grant, but a James Robinson runner with 12 seconds left was the winner. Notre Dame is the second best shooting team in the country and hit 53 percent, but still lost. That’s because Pittsburgh shot 58.5 percent. Nothing ugly about this game.

So the Panthers got a win they badly needed to stop the bleeding, before it was too late. A team doesn’t have to be in the ACC very long to understand how merciless it can be to the struggling. "This game right here was the season," Pitt’s Jamel Artis mentioned.

Notre Dame came in 20-2 for its best start in 41 years, but this was a rare victory the Irish could not steal at the end. They have won five ACC games after trailing by double digits, including twice the past week.

"We had two thefts already this week," coach Mike Brey said. "So we’re 2-1 in thefts."

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s been a hell of a week.

♦ ♦ ♦

On that note, time to head south through the mountains to ...

First thing to ask when you walk by the stately columns outside -- Virginia is Thomas Jefferson’s school, after all -- John Paul Jones Arena: Does every customer here wear the same color? Even the music stands for the band are orange.

Another good question: Were the unbeaten Cavaliers -- whose main weapon this season has been squeeze-the-air-out defense -- really blowing an 11-point lead to Duke?

Yes, it seems, is the answer to the first question. Absolutely, the answer to the second. In this showdown of top-4 ranked teams, the Blue Devils managed one 3-pointer in the first 35 minutes, but buried five in the last five minutes finishing the game on an 11-0 run to win 69-63.

There were all manners of numbers to note. It was the first loss for the Cavaliers, who had their best start in 34 years. Duke shot 50.9 percent from the floor, breaking Virginia’s streak of 43 consecutive opponents held under 50 percent. It snapped a 21-game home winning streak for Virginia. The 69 Blue Devil points were quite an achievement, given the fact the Cavaliers led the nation by allowing only 49.2 a game.

So it was the defense that let Virginia down this night. "It is weird losing this way," guard Justin Anderson said. "Because that is who we are."

Duke made a statement that drowned out any noise the numbers make. The Blue Devils have now won at Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia. A murderer’s row of road games. Those three were a combined 40-1 when Duke came to call. Two of the wins -- against Virginia and Louisville -- came after defeats. That is the undeniable characteristic of a team growing in maturity and steel.

"We’ve shown it before, being tough." Mike Krzyzewski said. "But in order to beat this team, you have to take it up a notch."

The young Blue Devils have been questioned after each and every one of their three defeats. Did Jahlil Okafor have enough help? Was something missing? Just in the past few days, Krzyzewski had won his 1000th game, with all the accompanying noise. The Blue Devils had blown a 10-point lead to lose at Notre Dame. And Krzyzewski had booted a player off the team -- Rasheed Sulaimon -- for the first time in his coaching career at Duke.

"It’s been a hell of a week," he said.

But what an ending. Afterward, Okafor sat by his locker and mentioned how, "We’re a resilient team. When we have our backs against the wall, we respond."


Meanwhile, Virginia coach Tony Bennett had 48 hours to revive his team and get ready to play at North Carolina on Monday. And Louisville will be there later in the week.

"That’s the beauty of the ACC," he said. Or did he mean the brutality?

By then, John Paul Jone Arena was empty and quiet and nearly orange-less. The brick walls at one end are even more striking in solitude. Six games had been played in the league on Saturday, and five were within one possession in the final minute of regulation.

So it goes in the ACC.

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