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If there was a game that encapsulates what it will take for N.C. State to emerge as one of the top teams in this season’s ACC standings, it would have to be the Wolfpack’s win Monday at Virginia.
With the shaky ground that comes with a 2-3 start, the Wolfpack had to battle back. Three games in six days did not make the task any easier, but if N.C. State was going to keep from digging itself into a bigger hole, the time to produce had arrived.
Defending national champion Virginia used a 15-0 run to battle back from an 11-point deficit and lead by four points with less than five minutes remaining. N.C. State was able to overcome, and the 53-51 road win in Charlottesville puts the Wolfpack in sole possession of fourth place in the ACC.
And the Wolfpack survived despite injuries and D.J. Funderburk’s foul trouble. Virginia had a final shot from 3-point range that would have handed the Cavaliers the win, but it was well off the mark.
“We’d already came into the game short-handed with Pat Andree and Manny Bates out,” N.C. State wing C.J. Bryce explained after the Wolfpack improved to 14-5 overall, 5-3 in the ACC. “With D.J Funderburk playing at such a high level right now, we kept going to the bench early. It was a problem for us at first, but Danny [Dixon] did a great job coming off the bench. He got some rebounds for us, brought energy, and kept us moving forward. I thought we did a really good job of keeping our composure. They had a chance to win it with that shot at the end.”
The Wolfpack remarkably were held scoreless for over 10 minutes in the second half. When the going got tough, N.C. State was tougher and it was the defense from the visitors in the game’s waning minutes that decided the fate of the contest.
“We knew coming in that this is a tough place to play, and then Virginia is such a tough program to play against because they’re so great on the defensive end,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said. “I told the guys before the game, ‘If we’re going to win the game, it’s going to be because we have to defend them,’ because I knew the score would be low. I thought our guys did a tremendous job.”
In a season that has produced highs and lows despite not being at the halfway point, the Wolfpack’s even-keel nature was vital in finding a way to fend off the defending national champions.
Jericole Hellems drilled a contested 3-pointer with 3:38 remaining to end Virginia’s 15-0 run and cut the deficit to one point. It was the first field goal for N.C. State in over 10 minutes.
While Markell Johnson hit another three and Hellems followed with a pivotal layup to hand the Wolfpack a 3-point advantage as the game entered the final minute, it was the trifecta that ended the Cavaliers run that kept hope alive in a game of runs.
“Throughout the game, we had ups and downs,” Hellems said. “Coach told us before the game that we would have ups and downs. After that shot, we realized we really could win this game. We came out like we always do and just kept playing until the clock’s out. For us, our mentality was just to finish the game strong if all else fails.”
The Wolfpack indeed finished the game strong. Their resilience has put them in the top-four of the ACC.
Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.