RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State senior Gavin Grant was confident his shot in the final seconds would go in, and so were his teammates.
However, just in case, NC State's Ben McCauley went hard for the basket and slam dunked the miss for the game-winning basket to propel the Wolfpack to a critical 67-65 win over Wake Forest in front of 14,183 fans at the RBC Center.
The dunk was close to the final horn, but officials checked the replay, and it was clearly out of McCauley's hands before the red light on the backboard went on.
"I didn't want to take any chances laying it up, so I just threw it home," McCauley said. "I was just so excited. I didn't really have any words for it. That's something you see different teams doing on the top 10 [plays on Sports Center]. I would see it and figured, 'Yeah, that would be awesome.'"
NC State improved to 14-7 overall and 3-4 in the ACC, and host Virginia Tech on Tuesday. Wake Forest falls to 13-7 and 3-4.
"It's about the character of our team," NC State coach Sidney Lowe said. "When we want it and we concentrate, we play well. We've been working on our mental game, not breaking down and making mistakes to help us win."
Grant had been the hero with game-winning baskets in three previous games and was confident with his 3-point attempt. McCauley's first instinct was to follow the play.
"I had a lot of confidence that Gavin would make it, but you always have to go for the offensive rebound," McCauley said. "Sure enough, he missed it, luckily for me, and I was there with enough time left. They were probably thinking the time was out and that was the last shot of the game. I had a lane and went straight for it."
Grant wasn't sure who won the game for the Wolfpack.
"I just saw a hand and the ball went into the rim," said Grant, who scored a team-high 17 points, including going 3 of 5 from 3-point range.
Wake Forest struggled down the stretch against NC State's mixture of zone and man-to-man defense, which was designed to slow down guards Jeff Teague and Ishmael Smith, who scored 17 and 15 points respectively.
The Wolfpack played zone for a few minutes before switching back to man-to-man for the final 2:11.
"That definitely slowed them down," Grant said. "We had a problem keeping [guard Jeff] Teague in front of us. He was picking us apart. We definitely needed to find a way to stop him. They made a couple of 3s, but that is where we changed the game with the zone."
Smith was poised to be the hero for Wake Forest, driving hard to the basket to tie the game at 65 with 5.2 seconds remaining, setting up McCauley's heroics.
McCauley became a factor midway through the second half. He was scoreless until getting a layup with 10:32 left in the game. The junior finished with 11 points, three rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes. Six of his points came in the last four minutes.
"This lifts me up a little bit and gives me some confidence the rest of the season," McCauley said. "I'm glad Coach Lowe had confidence in me to be in there at the end of the game.
"It's just a matter of picking my spots whenever he needs me to do something, then I'm there to do it. If I'm not scoring, I'm more than happy to play good defense, get rebounds and make good passes."
McCauley played a critical role in helping NC State get the lead for the first time, going down on the floor to get a rebound and passing it out to point guard Javier Gonzalez, who promptly hit a streaking J.J. Hickson, who finished the sequence with a graceful reverse dunk to give the Wolfpack a 62-61 lead with 2:56 remaining.
"That just proves how good this team can be when it plays together," Hickson said. "We know what each other are going to do. It was a major turning point in the game and it gave us the lead and our crowd got into it.
"I didn't know I was going to do it [a reverse] until I caught the ball and I just went up and reversed it."
The closing charge was aided with 3-pointers by Gonzalez and Grant that helped tie the game at 58-58.
"I expect things like that from Ben and J.J. because they do that in practice," Grant said. "That was two freshmen hooking up [on Hickson's slam]. They've been getting better for us lately."
NC State's experience in close games proved critical, plus having the home crowd advantage. Wake Forest has lost 10 straight ACC road games.
"We talked before the game that in order to win on the road, you have to have good shot selection," WFU coach Dino Gaudio said. "We've taken good care of the basketball, and we only had nine turnovers again today, but our shot selection was poor at times.
"When we learn to recognize what's a good shot and what's not, our shooting percentage will go up."