RALEIGH — These past three games had almost everything for N.C. State: Controversy, comebacks and close calls.
"I've never seen anything like it," N.C. State swingman C.J. Williams said. "But that's why we play college basketball."
Almost everything: N.C. State's three-game stretch against Duke, Florida State and North Carolina offered everything except the win the Wolfpack desperately needed to bolster its NCAA tournament credentials. The final chance passed Tuesday with an 86-74 loss to the Tar Heels, N.C. State's 12th straight against North Carolina.
While the Tar Heels pursue first place in the ACC and a potential, if unlikely, No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, N.C. State just wants to be invited. The original goal, set by N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried before the season, was 11 ACC wins. That is out the window now. At 7-6, with three games to play, 10 will have to do.
And the thing is, that might be enough. A season sweep of Miami, a 10-6 conference record, a win or two in the ACC tournament - that may not seem like much, but the bubble is awfully short on quality this year, and Miami's loss was N.C. State's gain when the Hurricanes blew a five-point lead in the final two minutes at Maryland on Tuesday.
So there's still hope for the Wolfpack. No question about it. But they will also acknowledge the chances they missed over the past week, and how close they came.
"We had some opportunities," Gottfried said. "We've had a lot this year, to be quite honest. I think so many things can happen. We certainly had opportunities to help ourselves, no question. All we can do is just continue to play really hard and do everything we possibly can and see where we end up. That's where we are."
They were up 20 on Duke in the second half before the Blue Devils mounted a comeback of remarkable proportions, to say the least. They endured the Karl Hess sideshow against Florida State, when the referee ejected Wolfpack legends Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani in the absence of any visible justification.
That had the RBC Center at a fever pitch Tuesday - come for the near-riot, stay for the basketball game - even before N.C. State engaged in a little old-fashioned populist pandering, creating an instant award out of thin air to honor the 1988-89 team, which just happened to include Gugliotta and Corchiani. N.C. State even brought the old noise meter over from Reynolds Coliseum to drive the point home.
It all made for delectable drama before the game even started, and the on-court proceedings delivered. C.J. Leslie and Kendall Marshall produced the kind of individual performances a heated rivalry can inspire: 24 points and 12 rebounds for Leslie against John Henson, a career-high 22 points, 13 assists and zero turnovers for Marshall.
N.C. State tied the score at 30 and maintained single-digit contact through much of the night, with the Tar Heels unable to keep the Wolfpack at anything more than arm's length until midway through the second half. And even then, N.C. State kept chipping away.
The Wolfpack didn't give up Tuesday, and they're not giving up on their NCAA tournament hopes now. There are three games left, at Clemson, at home against Miami and at Virginia Tech - all winnable games, none easy.
Take care of business, and the Wolfpack has a chance. Extend the losing streak, and it's a lost cause.
"I can't tell you who's on the bubble and who's not," N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown said. "I just hope we get in."
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