RALEIGH — There were 25 seconds to play and N.C. State was leading by six when a large number of fans started to head up the aisles and out to the parking lots. None of them ended up beating any traffic.
By the time Maryland stole an inbounds pass and scored quickly to cut the lead to four, there suddenly was a very large and very interested standing-room-only crowd at the top of the RBC Center's lower bowl.
Given some of the difficulty the Wolfpack has had finishing games this season, they probably should have known better. So they watched, from above, as N.C. State made 10 free throws in the final minute to lock down a 79-74 win against the Terrapins on Sunday.
This Wolfpack bunch is turning out to be a pretty fun team to watch, at least until it comes time to finish a win. Then, fans might be forgiven for averting their gaze. (Maybe the people on their way out had the right idea after all.)
N.C. State led Indiana by seven with less than eight minutes to go but lost by 11. Four days later, the Wolfpack led at Stanford by 12 in the second half and didn't trail in that game until there were less than four minutes to play. The Cardinal won by four.
Wins in those two games would have looked awfully good on the Wolfpack's NCAA tournament resume, but the committee will have to be convinced on the basis of N.C. State's play in the ACC. So far, the Wolfpack is 1-0 precisely because it avoided the same fate Sunday.
The Wolfpack led by 14 with five minutes to play before letting Maryland whittle that lead down to four points on that Mychal Parker steal (and, later, down to three with 3.6 seconds to go). N.C. State never did let Maryland close the gap.
"We had a little bit of that comedy of errors we had there," said N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried. "Our guys come into the timeout, five guys, everybody's kind of got their heads down. I said, 'We're not doing that. We're not there. We're going to win the game, period. Now, let it go, and let's correct the next one.' It's a process with our guys, hanging in there and believing, but they're much, much farther along than they were in November or December."
Not letting a lead slip away is a start. Compounding that lead instead of clinging to it is the next step. There's still some work to be done there.
With about three minutes to go, N.C. State's offense started to stumble. Scott Wood called it "stagnant" - the collective uncertainty of a team not used to playing with a late lead.
The Wolfpack missed four shots and turned the ball over three times before Wood hit a jumper coming out of a timeout to move the lead back to seven with 91 seconds to go.
"It's one of the things we definitely need to focus on a lot more," said N.C. State forward Richard Howell. "When we get a big lead like that, not letting it shrink. I think at one point, we had an 11-point lead and they kept cutting it down, cutting it down. We want to emphasize, instead of letting it get cut down, we get it to 15 or 16 points."
Still, the Wolfpack is starting to do what it takes to win. Maryland sent the Wolfpack to the foul line 12 times in the final minute. The Wolfpack made 10.
And the fans who thought they had seen enough, it turned out they had after all.
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