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JOHNNY MCNEIL: GEORGIA TECH'S N.C. CONNECTION

JOHNNY MCNEIL: GEORGIA TECH'S N.C. CONNECTION

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For sure, this was a different Atlantic Coast Conference basketball finals.

For the first time in a quarter of a century there was no Big Four or Tobacco Road school represented at Charlotte when the finals tipped off on Sunday. Instead, the teams wore the colors of Georgia Tech and Virginia and the yellow of Tech dominated when it was all over. So, for all intents and purposes, the Tar Heel State was shut out.Right?

Wrong.

It didn't take sharp eyes to spot a parochial, or provincial, connection to Georgia Tech's success. If you can't find a 6-9, 233-pound mass of humanity under the basket, then, brother, you've got a problem.

Senior Johnny Jacob McNeil, a native of High Point and a holder of a 21-point scoring average at Andrews High School, was a prominent, if underrated, member of the Yellow Jacket cast. You've heard of the untouchables. Well, he was one of the unsungs, the fogottens. He and his twin hammer, 6-10, 230-pound freshman Malcolm Malik Mackey.

As massive as they are, and as intimidating as they can be, both were inconspicuous in the shadow of George Tech's ``Lethal Weapon III,' otherwise known as the Bomb Squad - Dennis Scott, Brian Oliver and freshman Kenny Anderson. Scott never saw a shot he didn't like, Oliver never saw one he couldn't make and Anderson never saw one he couldn't create.

They are ``Showtime, 1990.'

So who's going to notice a couple of blue collar workers when you've got three rocket launchers around? But, hey, somebody has got to load the rockets and somebody has got to set them up. And, goodness gracious, you don't need two more rocket launchers to go with the ``Lethal Weapons.' If you had five rocket launchers and no loaders, you'd need five basketballs.

The biggest myth around is that Georgia Tech has ``no inside game.'

Virginia coach Terry Holland, who lost to Tech in the finals, had an answer to that cliche that's been repeated all season.

Says Holland, ``You don't hear much about McNeil and Mackey because they're overshadowed by the three scorers, Scott, Oliver and Anderson, but, believe me, Georgia Tech couldn't have done what it did without the contributions of five players, a full team. McNeil and Mackey did a good job all season and improved from one game to another.'

TV analyst Dan Bonner described McNeil as ``a great role player.'

McNeil's story is one along the lines of Horatio Alger.

He had an outstanding career at Andrews in High Point, averaging, as mentioned, more than 20 points a game. Since his early youth, he'd been a fan of ACC basketball and had as his idols Ralph Sampson of Virginia and the late Len Bias of Maryland.

Not quite ready for a four-year school, he opted for Chowan Junior College, where he averaged 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds for a team that advanced to the National Juco tournament. All the while, he had his eye on an ACC school. Upon the conclusion of his career at Chowan, McNeil had offers from Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, N.C. State, along with South Carolina, Tennessee and Boston College.

He chose Tech and went in with two other Juco transfers, Karl Brown and Maurice Brittain. Together, they were supposed to be the answers to Bobby Cremins' prayers.

It was too much to ask.

His first, or junior, year at Tech was average, with a standard of 5.8 points and more than five boards, but he did manage to start 15 of the last 16 games and show a steady improvement.

Of the three junior college transfers, became the only starter.

Says Cremins, ``I was forced to throw Johnny in there. I really didn't expect him to start. But he really hits the boards and fights - that's his game.'

Last year the Jackets weren't quite a complete team. Then, with the recruitment of the sensational Anderson, who takes things into his own hands and even makes Cremins a better coach, McNeil's role changed again.

He says, ``When I came in, it seemed like I had a lot riding on my shoulders. Everybody was saying if the junior college players didn't do well, then Tech wouldn't do well. But that wasn't the case. It's more relaxing this year. I know what my role is.

``Everybody is working hard and I've been contributing a lot so I'm very satisfied with my role. I never was a scorer. There was pressure on me to score but that wasn't my game. Now I try to get just eight or 10 points and rebounds.

``I love it. I never thought I'd get this far. I went to junior college in hopes of getting a chance. Sometimes when I'm by myself, it hits me. I have everything I want I'm very happy.'

So far McNeil is averaging more than five points and like a number of rebounds and making key foul shots, as he did in the ACC tournament. But he is also doing something else...committing personal fouls at the rate of one every six minutes.

He has the perfect demeanor for a fouler, a sad-eyed hangdog, ``who me?' look that he gives the officials.

But there is nothing insincere about McNeil's fouling. His infractions come as part of a natural aggression and coaches can live with those kind. Last year McNeil was disqualified eight times and this year he has already matched that.

Cremins would prefer to keep him around a little longer in the NCAA games, if it's okay with Johnny.

In the meantime Tar Heels should appreciate their only connection to the ACC championship. You can bet that High Point does.

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