Now, N.C. State won’t have to sweat it out.
The Wolfpack wanted to come to the ACC tournament and solidify a spot in the NCAA tournament field. Beat Clemson in the opener at the Spectrum Center, the reasoning went, and that should be enough.
The Pack did its part Wednesday, rallying from 16 points behind at halftime with some gutty, determined play in the second half, pulling out a 59-58 victory.
“Great win for us. We survive and advance,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said after his first ACC tournament win.
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Markell Johnson’s two free throws with 2.6 seconds remaining, the last of his 23 points, lifted the Pack ahead 59-58. Clemson used a timeout after the first foul shot but Johnson was not unnerved, not this day, knocking in the second.
Clemson’s last-gasp shot was not a good one, Marcquise Reed flinging up a deep shot that was off line at the buzzer.
The Pack (22-10) moved on to face top-seeded Virginia on Thursday. Clemson (19-13) might have had its NCAA chances end.
The Pack, seeded eighth, could do little right in the first half, trailing 42-26 at the break and shooting 35.5 percent from the field. Clemson was sizzling, making eight 3-pointers in the half after hitting seven of its first eight.
“We talked at halftime, it wasn’t about X’s and O’s, it was about how much heart and desire and effort you would put into it,” Keatts said. “Play as hard we can for 20 minutes and we’ll live with the result.”
Turns out, N.C. State had plenty of fight left. The Pack, 1-of-10 from the 3-point line in the opening half, used 3’s from Johnson, Devon Daniels and Jericole Hellems to surge within 51-47 with 11:48 remaining in regulation.
The defense was there. The momentum. Clemson was missing shots, making just six of 31 (19.4 percent) in the second half.
“In the second half, we just came out with a different mentality,” Hellems said. “Coach got into us at halftime and told us to do some soul-searching. So we turned it around. Nobody wanted to lose.”
Consecutive 3-pointers by Johnson then pushed the Pack ahead 57-53 -- the first 3 just as the shot-clock expired.
Just when the Tigers appeared on the verge of a collapse, Reed knocked down a 3 with 3:57 left and the Pack’s Torin Dorn was called for a foul underneath the basket. After a media timeout, Elijah Thomas scored inside and the Tigers had the lead 58-57.
That’s the way it stayed until the final seconds. Clemson had fouls to give in the last minute of regulation and used them until Johnson was fouled on a drive to the basket by Clyde Trapp.
“Just trying to take the best shot possible,” Johnson said.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell did not like the call, saying, “Just thought it was a tough, tough play for us. Really disappointed with the way the game ended. Too much at stake for things to end like that.”
Replays showed Trapp hitting Johnson on his right arm in the lane, forcing him to take a left-handed shot. Asked if the foul was committed in the act of shooting, Keatts said, “One hundred percent it was.”
Keatts probably could not have imagined a worse start to the game. Or Brownell a better one.
A 15-2 run pushed Clemson ahead 18-6. Later, back-to-back 3-pointers by Aamir Simms ballooned the Tigers’ lead to 36-18.
Keatts mentioned it was a noon start, adding, “I told these guys I don’t think they woke up until 1 and we started to play.”
The Tigers were 0-7 from the 3-point line in the 69-67 loss to the Pack in Raleigh in late January. They were 8-13 in the opening half Wednesday while the Wolfpack missed nine of 10.
But the Pack was a different team in the second half -- gritty, physical. The comeback resulted in the second-largest halftime deficit overcome in ACC tournament history. It was the first time the Pack has rallied from a 16-point halftime deficit since a Feb. 4, 2004 game against Wake Forest that N.C. State won 73-68.
“We just stayed together. We had each others’ backs,” guard Braxton Beverly said. “We really didn’t have to hear a halftime speech. Everybody had that look in their eyes.”
Keatts has seen that look before this season.
“There’s no quit in us,” he said.