Out of frustration came a moment of clarity for Terry Henderson.
The N.C. State senior guard saw Tuesday’s ACC game with Pittsburgh slipping away in the second half, and possibly the season with it, and decided enough was enough.
So Henderson made the plays when they counted for the Wolfpack (13-6, 2-4 ACC) in a 79-74 home win over the equally desperate Panthers on Tuesday.
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“I just wanted to win,” said Henderson, who scored 21 points. “I wasn’t going to be able to deal with myself if we took another loss, especially on our home floor.”
So down seven points, 69-62, and with 7:39 to play, Henderson pulled up for a jump shot from the right side of the foul line. He missed but forward Omer Yurtseven corralled the rebound, one of a game-high 16 for the freshman. But Yurtseven missed the putback, and then another. Henderson swooped in, jumped over Pitt forward Michael Young and scored on the follow shot.
On N.C. State’s next possession, Henderson made a 3 from in front of the Wolfpack bench to cut the Panthers’ lead to 69-67.
Yurtseven got a dunk on State’s next trip to tie the game and the Wolfpack surged ahead to break an ugly three-game ACC losing streak.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried wanted toughness and defense after what he called a “pitiful” performance in an 86-76 loss to Georgia Tech and Henderson responded with leadership.
As clear as Henderson’s role was on Tuesday, it was Monday in practice where the Wolfpack figured out some basics after re-watching the horror of the Georgia Tech loss.
“We all saw ourselves on film, saw how we were playing and we understood that we needed to play harder and smarter,” Henderson said.
There was definitely more intensity on Tuesday on the defensive side for the Wolfpack. The Panthers were able to withstand a quick start by the Wolfpack and get the game into the half down 35-34.
Then Pitt started the half by making 13 of its first 17 shots. The Panthers led 67-60 and 69-62 before Henderson and Yurtseven tied the game and then sophomore wing Maverick Rowan (21 points) and freshman guard Markell Johnson (eight points, seven assists) brought it home.
Rowan, who made a career-best six 3-pointers, buried a 3 from the right wing to give N.C. State a 72-71 lead at 3:51.
A key defensive play by Johnson, knocking the ball off of Young’s hands at 1:52, set N.C. State up for the win.
Dennis Smith Jr. (11 points, six assists) made a pair of free throws and then Yurtseven made two more after an empty Pitt possession.
The Wolfpack was up 77-72 before a poorly timed foul by Smith, with 6.9 seconds, sent Jamel Artis to the foul line.
Artis made both free throws and then Smith turned the ball over on the inbounds pass.
Pitt had the ball, down 77-74, with 6.6 seconds left but Cameron Johnson missed a clean look from 3 with 2.3 seconds left.
Henderson was in position for the rebound but was pushed by Pitt’s Sheldon Jeter. Henderson went to the foul line and closed the door on the Wolfpack’s losing streak.
Henderson actually met with Gottfried before Monday’s practice.
“I don’t think there was anything magical about what I said,” Gottfried said. “It’s understanding really just how hard you’ve got to play, and if you don’t, what can happen.”
Gottfried was angry in Sunday’s post-game press conference but he wasn’t the only one.
“(Coach) was mad,” Henderson said. “I was mad, too. Everybody was mad. That’s what comes with it when you lose games that feel like you’re supposed to win. We were all pretty angry about that.”
The Wolfpack was able to channel that anger in practice on Monday. Henderson said the team didn’t work on any offense in practice, just defense.
“We didn’t even touch the ball, we didn’t go on offense at all,” Henderson said.
After Pitt did start 13 of 17 in the second half but finished 2 of 12. In the final 8 minutes when N.C. State needed to defend, it finally did.
Another loss was avoided and another crisis averted. There was no anger after Tuesday’s game, only a sigh of relief after the hectic final 6 seconds and a nod to team’s leader, who emerged just when the Wolfpack needed him most.
“I’m glad I was able to help my team,” Henderson said. “I couldn’t have done without them.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio