Wake Forest Comeback Stuns Wolfpack, 55-53
By Tony Haynes
Raleigh, N.C. - The senior sendoff for NC State's Julius Hodge, Jordan Collins and Levi Watkins did indeed turn into a night to remember. Unfortunately, most of the memories will be bad. Needing a win to perhaps secure a fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid, the Wolfpack let a huge breakthrough win slip through its fingers when 4th ranked Wake Forest (26-4, 13-3) scored five straight points over the last 14 seconds to post an amazing 55-53 victory before a stunned crowd of 19,082 at the RBC Center.
The loss dropped the Pack to 17-12 overall and 7-9 in the league, meaning it will have to play a first round game in next week's ACC Tournament at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. As the No. 7 seed, NC State will face off against No. 10 Florida State in the 2:30 game on Thursday.
A win on Sunday would have left the Wolfpack with a first-round bye and the No. 4 seeding in Washington. But Wake guards Justin Gray and Chris Paul made sure that didn't happen.
A dash of controversy - not to mention abysmal free throw shooting - contributed to the Pack's demise as well.
With NC State leading 52-50 and only 22 seconds remaining, Wolfpack guard Tony Bethel stepped to the free throw stripe with a chance to make it a two possession game. But the junior could only knock down the second of two at the line, leaving the Pack just 9-of-22 for the game.
Given an opening, Wake Forest turned the game over to its guards.
Suffering through a 4-for-15 shooting night at the time, Justin Gray stepped back with a defender in his face and drilled a 23-footer right in front of his own bench with 14 seconds remaining to tie it.
Then came the controversy.
NC State guard Engin Atsur pushed the ball up the court and took a 3-pointer from the top of the key with Gray challenging, a shot that fell several feet in front of the rim and out of bounds. As game officials awarded the ball to Wake Forest, Atsur, Hodge and the Wolfpack bench erupted, looking for a foul.
And although TV replays clearly indicated that Atsur was hit on the arm, there was no whistle from the ACC officiating crew of Karl Hess, Jamie Luckie and Bob Donato.
"I just don't think he shot an airball by four feet," said NC State head coach Herb Sendek. "Whether it was a blocked shot or a foul, I would have to see a replay. Engin said he got fouled. The call didn't go our way."
It was just the break Wake Forest needed.
After officials reviewed a replay to see how much time was left, 4.2 seconds was restored to the clock. The Deacons then put the ball in the hands of their fastest player. Taking the inbounds pass, Chris Paul weaved his way through traffic and put up a 10-foot runner that banked in just before the horn to give the Deacs a season sweep over their Big Four rivals.
The thrilling ending capped off an intense, hardfought and sometimes overly physical battle that left NC State crying foul when it was over.
In the first half, Paul, with a closed fist, took a swing at Hodge, a blow that caught the NC State swingman right in the groin. The punch was missed by game officials but caught on television replays. After writhing in pain under the Wolfpack basket for a few minutes, Hodge bounced angrily to his feet and pointed to Paul on the Deacons bench before running off to the lockerroom for treatment.
When Hodge returned to the game, the two clashed again. After being fouled by Paul on a shot underneath, Hodge shoved the sophomore guard and was called for a technical foul.
"I saw there were some words exchanged and players were excited out on the court," said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. "I wanted to take [Paul] out and get him under control because we needed him to lead this team. This game is best played without the chirping, technicals and physicality that it sometime carries."
Naturally, players from NC State had a different viewpoint.
"Some people let things go to their heads and figure they can do anything they want," forward Ilian Evtimov said of Paul's actions.
Evtimov, NC State's scoring leader with 19 points, was 5-of-8 from 3-point range. But like most of his teammates, he also struggled from the free throw line, going just 2-of-6. Face-guarded by Deacons forward Jamaal Levy most of the game, Hodge was held to just eight points on 3-of-5 shooting from the floor. He also missed 5-of-7 from the foul line.
Gray paced Wake Forest with 15 points, while Vytas Danelius added 12 and Eric Williams 11.
The wild ending and poor free throw shooting overshadowed an incredible defensive effort by the Wolfpack. One of the nation's top scoring teams with an average of 86 points per game coming in, Wake Forest shot just 28.6 percent in the second half, making just six field goals after intermission. For the game, Wake hit 20-of-53 shots for 37.7 percent. The Wolfpack was 18-of-44 for 40.9 percent.
"They played as good a defense as has been played by any team in America this year," Sendek said of his team's effort. "It was as good a defense as any team could play for 40 minutes. Our defense was phenomenal."
But the missed opportunities at the free throw line combined with the clutch shots at the end by Gray and Paul could make it difficult for NC State to get back in the NCAA Tournament without a run in D.C. next week.
"State is a national tournament caliber team playing for a tournament bid in front of a great home crowd," Prosser said. "Each time we play it's always a challenge. They are a well coached group and they really played well tonight."
To add insult to injury, the Wolfpack may have lost Jordan Collins for the remainder of the postseason. Going after an offensive rebound late in the game, the senior center suffered a shoulder separation after hitting the floor hard.