WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Jeff Bzdelik has watched his Wake Forest program stumble time after time, fumbling away close games, getting blown out in others. This time, the Demon Deacons didn't let the moment get away -- even against a team picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Freshman Devin Thomas had a season-high 25 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks to help Wake Forest upset No. 18 North Carolina State 86-84 on Tuesday night, the program's first win against a ranked opponent in nearly three years.
Travis McKie added 16 points for the Demon Deacons (10-8, 3-3 ACC), including two free throws with 3.4 seconds left that helped Wake Forest hold on down the stretch in a wild final 4 1/2 minutes.
N.C. State led by 16 points in the first half and 12 at halftime, then the Demon Deacons rallied to take a 10-point lead before the Wolfpack's frantic final push to set up a tense finish.
Ultimately, Wake Forest -- a program filled with freshmen and trying desperately to return to relevance in the ACC -- did just enough to earn a win that sent their fans storming midcourt to celebrate.
"There were a lot of moments," Bzdelik said of the game's swings, "but we finished with a beautiful moment."
The Demon Deacons had done little other than struggle in three seasons under Bzdelik, going a combined 5-27 in league play the previous two years. That included losses to the Wolfpack (15-4, 4-2) by 36 and 25 points in the past two meetings in Winston-Salem.
But Wake Forest is 3-0 at home in league games this season and now has its first win against a team ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 since beating Georgia Tech in February 2010 under former coach Dino Gaudio, according to STATS LLC.
The win also managed to deny N.C. State its first 5-1 ACC start since 1988-89.
"I'm just sad to see that we lost this game like that," said Lorenzo Brown, one of several N.C. State starters hampered by foul trouble. "We definitely shouldn't have let them come back. That was our fault. We've just got to come back with more intensity."
Freshman Rodney Purvis scored 18 points to lead the Wolfpack, who fell to 1-2 since upsetting top-ranked Duke on Jan 12. Fellow rookie T.J. Warren scored 14 points, while C.J. Leslie scored 13 despite playing just 18 minutes due to foul trouble.
"It's not like we're still living in the moment of beating Duke," Purvis said. "That game has been over with. ... We've just got to find our way and find ourselves and get back to playing the way we need to play."
Wake Forest got 40 of its 51 points after halftime from freshmen behind Thomas. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward more than doubled his previous scoring high (12 points) on 10-for-13 shooting while also matching his season high for rebounds and blocks.
Thomas' performance came against a front line that included Leslie, the preseason ACC player of the year, and double-double machine Richard Howell.
"I think we're growing up every game," Thomas said. "We're learning a lot from every game, every practice. I think we're doing a better job of finishing around the rim. That's one of our weaknesses but we're doing a better job of it."
Fellow rookie Codi Miller-McIntyre added 15 points for the Demon Deacons, who shot 59 percent after halftime. Wake Forest won despite going the final 4:11 without a field goal, the last coming on Arnaud William Adala Moto's layup for an 82-72 lead.
But N.C. State made things interesting with a 10-1 run to close the gap to 83-82 on Leslie's free throw with 1:01 left.
But Leslie missed two free throws for the lead with 29.9 seconds left, then Scott Wood missed an open 3-pointer off an offensive rebound following Leslie's second miss. Then, after a free throw from C.J. Harris, the Wolfpack came up empty on two shots from inside the paint -- one from Leslie while taking contact and a runner off a loose rebound by Purvis -- with the chance to tie.
The Wolfpack had a final chance to tie or win after Leslie scored on a layup with 1.2 seconds left to cut it to two following McKie's late free throws. Warren stole a long inbounds pass near midcourt, but his final desperate heave wasn't close as the horn sounded and fans poured onto the court.
"What's that thing at the NCAA tournament: `One Shining Moment'?" said McKie, a junior. "It's definitely mine. This will be mine right here. I'll definitely remember this always."