ATLANTA — So it comes down to one last chance, a ninth chance for N.C. State, really, to prove its worth. A ninth chance to pick up a win that will impress the NCAA tournament committee. A ninth chance to end a six-year NCAA drought.
Vanderbilt. Indiana. Syracuse. North Carolina. Virginia. Duke. Florida State. North Carolina again. All but Indiana were ranked when the Wolfpack played them, and the Hoosiers were only 10 days away from beating Kentucky.
Eight chances, all losses. Today, the Wolfpack gets a ninth, against Virginia again, and its season hinges on it.
"It's a lot of pressure, but I feel like we thrive on pressure," N.C. State forward Richard Howell said. "We've had our backs against the wall the last three games and we're going to keep pushing and fight through everything."
The Wolfpack has played good teams. Its nonconference schedule was among the toughest in the country. N.C. State just didn't beat any of them.
Thursday's 78-57 win against Boston College gives N.C. State one more referendum on its tournament hopes. And if it comes down to a head-to-head comparison with Virginia, well, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried likes his odds, noting the Cavaliers had the same ACC record as N.C. State.
None of that matters if N.C. State loses, but it might mean a lot if it wins.
"It's hard to tell," Gottfried said. "We all wish we knew. We all wish we had a crystal ball and we could look in there and tell us exactly. For us, the answer is to continue to win. I don't know if that's one game, two games, three games. I know if we win this tournament, we get to go."
It would have been all too easy for N.C. State to give up after a brutal four-game losing streak that started with a 20-point blown lead in the second half against Duke, and ended with an overtime loss at Clemson.
Instead, the Wolfpack rallied to nail down a must-win game against Miami, a must-win game at Virginia Tech, and Thursday's must-win against Boston College, and today's ... yeah, they're all must-wins from here on out, and have been since the Clemson loss.
No one knows if or how much a win against Virginia will impress the committee, its criteria transparent but the logic behind its decisions often inscrutable.
This much is certain: Without a win today, the Wolfpack is headed to the National Invitation Tournament. Not that there's anything wrong with that: From where N.C. State was at this time last year, it's a giant leap forward.
"We came down here to win it all," forward Scott Wood said. "If we can dig deep and find a way to do that, we don't need to worry about the committee."
Gottfried said before the ACC season, it would take 11 wins to make the NCAA tournament. He wasn't counting the tournament, but a win against Virginia would be N.C. State's 11th against an ACC team. And that just might be enough to get it done.
The Wolfpack lost by one to the Cavaliers in January when Lorenzo Brown's last-second 3-pointer was way off. He was supposed to drive but was steered wide as time ran out.
"I don't even want to think about the end of that game," Brown said, "because I took a bad shot."
Today, Brown gets a another shot. The Wolfpack gets a shot.
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