ATLANTA — After Mark Gottfried was hired by N.C. State in April, and throughout the first half of the season, the coach repeatedly said that his team had a "long way to go."
But there was the Wolfpack on Saturday in Atlanta going back-and-forth with North Carolina, the best team in the conference, in a classic ACC game and just seconds away from a spot in the ACC championship game.
Kendall Marshall's bank shot, with 10.2 seconds left, provided the difference for the top-seeded Tar Heels, who advanced to the title game with a pulsating 69-67 win.
North Carolina (29-4) will play Florida State game in today's championship game at 1 p.m.
N.C. State (22-12) could not end a five-year losing streak to the Tar Heels, a streak that has reached 13 games, or snare a "signature" win for their NCAA tournament hopes, but the Wolfpack made Gottfried change his familiar refrain.
"We've come a long way and we have gotten a lot better," Gottfried said. "This is just a tough one to take."
The final sequence on Marshall's game-winning shot was immediately debated on ESPN after the game and will be by fans of both sides for the foreseeable future.
With the game tied at 67 - and after both sides had their top scorers foul out in a physical game - Marshall drove down the left side of the lane and was met by N.C. State guard Alex Johnson.
Johnson crashed to the floor, looking for a charging foul, but there was no whistle from referee Brian Dorsey and Marshall calmly banked in an 8-footer.
Johnson, who finished with eight points in 28 minutes, said he thought Marshall initiated the contact.
"I thought I could beat him to the spot to take the charge," Johnson said. "There was no call, so I guess it was a good play."
Marshall said he didn't think the officials would call a "ticky-tack" foul in an end-game situation.
"And thankfully enough, I was able to get it up on the backboard and it went in," Marshall said.
A steal by UNC forward Justin Watts with 1.2 seconds left thwarted N.C. State's best chance to send the game to overtime.
North Carolina got 23 points from Tyler Zeller, the league's player of the year, before he fouled out with 68 seconds left, and 12 points and 10 assists from Marshall, to help offset the absence of All-ACC forward John Henson, who missed the game with an injured left wrist.
Without Henson, who has 26 blocks in six games against N.C. State, forward C.J. Leslie tormented the Heels with 22 points and seven rebounds but he fouled out with 8:03 left. The Wolfpack led by three at the half and by seven, three different times in the second half, but started to unravel when Leslie fouled out. Leslie picked up his final two fouls, both called by Dorsey, in a 32-second span.
"It was hard, especially losing one of your best players with 8 minutes to go, but Lorenzo Brown and Richard Howell picked us up," N.C. State guard Scott Wood said. "We got baskets when we needed to except for the last 45 seconds."
Brown finished with 16 points, six assists and four steals and Howell added 11 points and 12 rebounds but N.C. State had two turnovers in the final 45 seconds - an errant pass from Johnson to Brown and Watts' steal on an entry pass from Wood to DeShawn Painter.
The Wolfpack's dejected and emotionally-drained players stared in disbelief in the locker room. N.C. State was hoping to win the tournament, to eliminate any doubt about making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
The Wolfpack did pick up an advocate for its postseason cause.
"If I was on the committee, I would fight very hard for N.C. State being in the (NCAA) tournament," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who improved to 19-1 in the rivalry. "There's no doubt in my mind they're one of the top 68 teams in the country and should be in the tournament."