Wolfpack survive late threat by Orange

NC State has now won four straight after upseting No. 11 Syracuse in its first ACC Tournament.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — When NC State (21-12) finally got some breaks it had been eagerly anticipating all season to knock off No. 11 Syracuse (27-5), it wasn’t going to apologize. 

Particularly not if that good fortune helps get the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament. 

After NC State emerged on the right side of a 66-63 win — in spite of letting Syracuse attempt six straight shots in the final 20 seconds of the ACC Tournament quarterfinals and get a few fortunate bounces — there was relief. But there was also joy, particularly with the memories of close games past.

A buzzer-beater in overtime by UNC’s Marcus Paige. A lay-up by Syracuse’s C.J. Fair with 6.7 seconds to go. And those were just the one-point defeats in the closing seconds. 

Those were crushing defeats for the Wolfpack, and not just because of what they meant in the moment. Those were potential wins that could have put NC State in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Instead, they were oh-so-close missed opportunities. 

"We’ve learned, we’ve grown up, we’ve gotten better," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said. "We had some games where we didn’t finish and they hurt, they hurt bad. 

That’s why I’m so proud of our guys, because you bounce back from adversity. We had some. We pour a lot into this. It’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of effort. When you come out of there short, it just cuts you. But our guys have been able to kind of get themselves back together and we talk about finishing, let’s finish the game."

NC State led by eight points with 7:30 to go, but then couldn’t seem to find a way to score. In fact, it would be five more minutes before they hit another field goal. Syracuse wasn’t shooting all that well either, but it kept chipping away until it took a two-point lead with 3:41 to go. 

And that final sequence of the game … that could be its own separate story. 

Reigning ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren, who was brilliant while his teammates gave him just enough help, scored his 27th and 28th points on two free throws to put NC State up by three with 25 seconds to go. 

After Tyler Ennis missed a runner with 21 seconds left and Jerami Grant missed a dunk follow, Syracuse would attempt — and miss — four more three-pointers, some shot rather wildly as if each player thought only a few seconds remained. 

Most of the three-pointers were airballs, and some barely nicked the rim.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a surreal few seconds, as a three-pointer would have sent the game into overtime. 

And, well — just let NC State senior Jordan Vandenberg navigate everyone through said final Syracuse possession. 

"They were scrambling for the ball, and we were trying to get the ball, and they were shooting wild 3s, and then I almost got dunked on, and then Cooney shot a 3, and then C.J. Fair shot a 3, and then Ennis shot a 3, and then I was like, ‘What’s going on here? I don’t even know’," Vandenberg said.

"And they missed them all, too, so it was getting really frustrating, and then C.J. Fair just walked out of bounds with the ball, and that finished the play for me. I was like, ‘All right, that didn’t happen.’"

But it did happen. 

And if it hadn’t been happening to his team, Vandenberg said it would’ve been almost … entertaining.

"We’re trying to box out in there and guys are jumping over our backs and balls are flying around," Vandenberg said. "It was scary, but then at the moment, you just want to stand and watch because it’s really entertaining at the same time because I’ve never seen that happen before. 

"We were trying to get the ball, now. It’s not like I was in there going, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ It was very entertaining, even though I was trying to get the ball, which is fun for me."

Gottfried and his players could laugh about it after the fact — but barely.

When guard Ralston Turner said he was holding his breath, Gottfried quipped, "That’s probably why we couldn’t get a rebound — we were holding our breath."

Saturday, the Wolfpack will face Duke in the ACC semifinal and that’s yet another opportunity for NC State.

"I want these guys to experience something special. And they’ve had the odds against them all year," Gottfried said. "I look back to November the 8th when we opened up until now, we’ve just come a long way. I want them to keep going."