ATLANTA — It was an important day for North Carolina, but it was more important for N.C. State and unfortunately, the first ACC tournament semifinal game Saturday in Philips Arena got skewed by officiating.
That has to be a part of the record, simply because the fourth and fifth foul calls on Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie were as pivotal in the outcome - Tar Heels 69, State 67 - as the jumpers, follows, fouls and turnovers.
When official Brian Dorsey irrationally read an offensive foul into a Leslie spin move with eight minutes, 35 seconds left, the game changed some. It then changed radically 32 seconds later when Dorsey whistled a fifth foul on Leslie, sending the standout sophomore to the bench with 22 points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes of playing time.
Had Leslie been allowed to play on, there's a good chance State (22-12) would be playing in today's championship game.
But it's also a fact that State coach Mark Gottfried said miscommunication among coaches on the Pack bench resulted in him not being advised that Leslie had four fouls.
"I would have taken him out, if only for a minute or two, so that's our responsibility," Gottfried said.
In defense of the Pack coaches, Leslie could have not have been taken out of the game unless a timeout had been called instantly after his fourth foul. There wasn't a clock stoppage between fouls four and five.
Too close to call
The overarching point on Dorsey's calls has to go to consistency - the one aspect of officiating that coaches say they value most.
That fourth foul call on Leslie (offensive move) wasn't interpreted the same way later when UNC's Kendall Marshall hit the winning shot after a collision with Alex Johnson.
Officials make mistakes and that's fine. But if you're an official charged with calling a State-Carolina game in the ACC tournament, you at least need to be consistent.
That said, it's also true that Carolina (29-4) went without all-ACC forward John Henson, whose wrist injury played as much of a part in the dramatic, tense game as the officials.
But if there's any justice - a phrase State fans don't care to hear and with good reason - all of it should make marginal difference in the NCAA tournament picture.
State definitely deserves an at-large bid and UNC likely would have been a No. 1 regional seed had the score Saturday been reversed.
And as Gottfried said in his post-game comments, the Pack will be a "tough out" if the earned bid is extended today.
Gottfried also said the Pack has improved as a team during its three ACC tournament games. No doubt on that point.
By the same token, so has UNC.
"We're fortunate to say the least," Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "If you want to put 'lucky' in there, you can say that as well ... give North Carolina State the credit for that."
When the ACC's player of the year Tyler Zeller (23 points, nine rebounds) went to the bench with his fifth foul and 68 seconds left, the Heels were forced to survive on the defense of Justin Watts and a decisive shot by Marshall.
Without Henson and with Harrison Barnes missing nine of 12 field-goal attempts, the Heels had to solve a difficult chemistry question in a matter of hours.
And it wasn't like the opponent was Boston College or even Florida State for that matter. The Pack went at Carolina with the sort of effort that Jim Valvano would have applauded on what would have been his 66th birthday.
In the long run what we saw Saturday was a landmark afternoon in the State-Carolina series despite the officiating. After two easy Tar Heel wins in regular season, the Pack showed the sort of commitment that once made the rivalry among the best in the nation.
The two old enemies made the game memorable. For the first time in a long time, we can say that State is moving in UNC's direction.
If you like Tobacco Road hoops, that's a win/win.