GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Syracuse had the ball with 21 seconds left and shot after potentially game-tying 3-point shot kept missing.
When Trevor Cooney’s 3-pointer sailed out of bounds with 0.4 seconds remaining it finally sealed No. 7 seed North Carolina State’s 66-63 upset win over the No. 2 seed Orange in the ACC quarterfinals on Friday.
That final possession brought four 3-point attempts that actually began with a Tyler Ennis miss at the rim and Jerami Grant’s failed attempt to dunk it off the rebound. Six shots in all and every one brought out a different kind of fear for NC State, which lost its regular-season meeting with the Orange in agonizing, last-second fashion.
NC State guard Tyler Lewis admitted he felt the doubt creep through his mind with every heave.
“Just don’t make it, just don’t make it, I swear,” Lewis said. “The ball bounced our way today. Normally you don’t always have that but today was our kind of luck.”
The Wolfpack are feeling lucky these days, but it has little to do with superstitions. Their faith comes from knowing they have T.J. Warren, the ACC’s player of the year, on their roster.
“We realize that T.J. is the best player on our team, we realized that since Day 1,” Pack freshman center Beejay Anya said. “When T.J.’s scoring the chances of us winning go higher and higher. We know he can’t do it by himself but at the same time we look for him more because we know he’s going to deliver if we get him the ball.”
The Pack feel like a serious contender because T.J. Warren finally realized he’s the best player.
Since their loss at North Carolina on Feb. 1, coach Mark Gottfried told Warren he had to be more assertive for the Wolfpack to win games. Warren responded with six games of 30 or more points in the 11 games since -- he had four in the first 21 games of the season. Warren always had the capability to post 41 and 42 points like he did in consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Boston College. Until Gottfried’s talk, he never would have tried to keep scoring.
“Coach Gottfried, he’s been pushing me to take tough shots and have the ball in my hands at the right time,” Warren said. “My teammates do a great job of finding me. It’s pretty cool being able to lead this team.”
Warren had 28 points against the Orange. He led the league in scoring and is likely to become just the sixth player in league history to lead it in field goal percentage for consecutive seasons.
But it was his defense that had Gottfried singing his praises. Warren matched up with Syracuse leading scorer C.J. Fair and held him to just nine points on 3-of-16 shooting.
“T.J. gets a lot of praise for his offense and he is a great offensive player, but I thought tonight T.J. Warren locked in defensively and made every shot that C.J. took tough,” Gottfried said. “Every single one of them. I don’t know that he had an easy shot all night long.”
State certainly didn’t make winning easy. The Pack squandered a 10-point lead and watched the Orange go ahead 59-57 with 3:41 left. It was starting to feel like their 55-54 loss at the Carrier Dome when an Anthony Barber turnover led to Fair’s game-winning layup with 12 seconds left.
But the Pack held firm this time despite whatever mistakes they made down the stretch.
Barber took an ill-advised layup when the Pack could have been running out more clock with 35 seconds left, but it was his free throws that had earlier tied the game at 59-59.
Ralston Turner gave State the lead for good when he banked a 3-pointer from about 25 feet. Turner joked that he called glass “in his mind.”
Gottfried said it took the Pack a while this season to figure things out, especially because they lost so much from last year and dealt with injuries early. Now they feel like they have a successful formula for March. Warren is going to score baskets and garner all the attention. The remaining players have to be prepared to fill in when they can.
“T.J. is a great player, he does what he does,” Turner said. “The main thing for the rest of us is we just need to help him making plays in whatever way we can to help the team, and tonight we did that.”
It’s given NC State the confidence that it can win the whole thing on the back of Warren.
“We grew as a team, we’ve got the ACC Player of the Year,” Barber said. “People are not expecting us to do what we’re doing. We just stay together no matter what to push forward to get to that next level, that next game.”