ATLANTA - It should have been a happier ending. Dolcie Hewitt will not be pleased.
"I'm sure I'm going to get a call from my mom," Paul Hewitt said. "She'll say, `You didn't look good walking off of the court. You shouldn't look that angry."'
The Georgia Tech coach was angry, and rightfully so. His Yellow Jackets pushed top-seeded North Carolina to the limit, and what happened in the end was all too familiar if not fair.
The fast start, the extended drought, the dogged turnaround, the breathless rally, the tense finish - it all seemed to be leading to a fabulous denouement for the unheralded Yellow Jackets.
Would it be a Shaun Fein 3-pointer? A Tony Akins drive? An Alvin Jones jam?
Anything but a whistle. ACC semifinals should not be decided by whistles - or the glaring lack thereof.
But this is how Georgia Tech's first ACC encounter under coach Hewitt ended. A phantom foul against T.J. Vines with 33 seconds remaining and an ignored travel by Julius Peppers with 14 ticks left. North Carolina 70-63. Bring on Duke. Same ol' same ol'.
Hewitt seethed. He tried to rage against the machine, chasing after referee Duke Edsall for clarity.
He got no satisfaction, so he stormed off the court and screamed at no one in particular. It was one sharp expletive popularized for years by ACC fans decrying the injustices that always seem to befall those not wearing the proper hue of blue.
"You guys saw it; you can make your own judgments on the last minute of the game," Hewitt said, careful not to incur a fine by invoking his right to free speech regarding the officiating.
North Carolina wasn't as shy. Joseph Forte, the gifted guard who carried the Tar Heels to another championship game, called his stumble "a savvy play" to extract him from a troubling situation. Matt Doherty, the North Carolina coach who made drawing charges an Oscar-caliber art form in his playing days, reminded Peppers (a football star) that players can't tuck the ball under their arms en route to the basket. Peppers admitted he walked before he jammed.
There was no denying the faulty facts in either locker room.
Even Vines was resigned to the sad reality.
"Great players get those calls down the stretch, and he's a great player," Vines said of Forte. "After that, he stepped up and made his free throws."
Stammered Hewitt: "I didn't see the replay, but somebody told me it looked like ... you know ... umm ... uh ... an unassisted trip."
It's a tough message for rookie ACC coaches to learn: you can take the ACC tournament off Tobacco Road, but you can't take Tobacco Road out of the ACC tournament. The benefit of the doubt almost always swings in favor of twin powers North Carolina and Duke.
Hewitt already understands the drill. During the news conference after Friday's victory over Virginia, he kept getting feedback from his microphone. He pushed it aside and quipped, "Carolina mike."
Even in the Georgia Dome.
Part of Georgia Tech's pain was self-inflicted - four missed free throws down the stretch and one devastating turnover. It's the other element that will linger.
Hewitt, however, won't let it fester. Though it can't replace the chance for five Georgia Tech seniors to play for an ACC championship in their adopted hometown, the disappointment of Saturday will be soothed by an NCAA tournament invitation tonight.
"I told the team that I couldn't have gotten more from a group of guys than we've gotten," Hewitt said. "They put themselves in position to win this game."
For that, Dolcie and her son can be proud.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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