ATLANTA — Mark Gottfried scribbled four steps in black marker on the greaseboard in N.C. State's locker room. Boston College was written under the first step, followed by Virginia, North Carolina and "ACC Champs!!" on the last step.
After N.C. State's 67-64 win over Virginia on Friday in the ACC tournament, Gottfried added a checkmark next to the Cavaliers on the board. Up next: the top-seeded Tar Heels, who have a 12-game winning streak over the Wolfpack.
C.J. Leslie's 19 points and 14 rebounds lifted N.C. State (22-11) to a much-needed win for its NCAA tournament hopes. With Texas (43 in the RPI) and Miami (49) moving into the top 50 of the RPI with conference tournament wins on Thursday, the Wolfpack now has four wins over the top 50, one of the numbers the selection committee considers when it picks the at-large pool for the 68-team field.
Will it be enough to move the Pack off the bubble and into the tournament for the first time since 2006?
Wolfpack guard Scott Wood would rather not leave the team's postseason fate to chance.
"Our mindset is to try and win this tournament so we can eliminate all the doubt," Wood said.
Gottfried, who has talked openly about the team's NCAA chances all season, said that's why his first team came to Atlanta, not to win one or two games but the school's first ACC title in 25 years.
"The surest way to be an NCAA tournament participant is to win your conference tournament," Gottfried said. "That's what we've come to do. Now, that's a tall order, we understand that."
N.C. State will have to shoot better from the free-throw line than it did on Friday against the Tar Heels, who beat N.C. State by 19 points in Chapel Hill and 12 in Raleigh. The Wolfpack went just 8 of 18 from the free-throw line, including a 5 of 10 stretch in the final 2 minutes of the game.
All-ACC forward Mike Scott carried Virginia (22-9) with 23 points and 10 rebounds, especially after the Cavaliers fell behind by nine points with 6 minutes left in the game.
"He's a great, great player," Leslie said. "He hit some tough, tough shots."
Scott's free throws with 2:18 left cut N.C. State's lead to 62-60 but after Leslie and Richard Howell combined to make only one of four free throws, Scott missed a contested shot in the post with 38.5 seconds left.
Wood, a 91 percent free-throw shooter on the season, missed one of his two free throws with 21.8 seconds left to give Virginia one last shot.
Down 65-62, Virginia's Joe Harris (18 points) missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 10 seconds left. Lorenzo Brown, who finished with 15 points and eight assists, made both of his free throws to put the game away.
Earlier in the season, N.C. State let second-half leads get away from them in losses to Indiana and Stanford and coughed up a 20-point lead at Duke on Feb. 16.
This time, the Wolfpack figured out how to close the door.
"We've improved from the beginning of the year," Gottfried said. "Early in the year, we sometimes weren't good enough. I think this team is learning how to execute their offense in late-game, tough situations (and) get a defensive stop at a tough time."