NC State battled until the bitter end, but couldn't get a clean look at the basket in the final seconds to knock off No. 19-ranked Virginia on Saturday.
NC State sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown had the ball in his hands and 7.8 seconds left in the game with the Wolfpack down by a point. He tried to drive toward the basket, but Virginia sophomore power forward Akil Mitchell popped out to guard him to re-route him toward the wing. Brown could only muster a difficult off-balance jumper, and Virginia held on for a hard-fought 61-60 victory in front of 17,027 fans at the RBC Center.
Virginia fifth-year senior center Mike Scott paced the Cavaliers with 18 points, while senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and sophomore small forward Joe Harris combined to go 6 of 9 from three-point range to finish with 12 points apiece.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett credited Mitchell's defense for slowing down Brown. The Cavaliers gambled by leaving open junior center DeShawn Painter free on the switch.
"I thought Akil did a terrific job of taking Brown out of the play," Bennett said. "We just played our ball screen defense, and he was quick with his slide. We didn't let him turn the corner and get into our defense. We had him string it out wide as the clock ticked, and then we made him take a tough shot."
NC State was hoping to get a NCAA Tournament resume victory over the Cavaliers, who improved to 17-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC. NC State's best current victory is over Texas, who fell to 13-8 on Saturday and is reeling of late with four out of five losses.
The narrow loss to Virginia could prove to be a missed opportunity for the Wolfpack, who fell to 15-7 overall and 4-3 in the league.
"Certainly it is, but I told our team if they play that hard every night, we are going to win a lot of games this year," Gottfried said. "We have won a lot of games this year, and we are going to win a lot more. The effort is what you take away from tonight."
NC State crushed undersized UVa 42-25 on the boards, and 18-5 on offensive rebounds. The Cavaliers were playing without injured 7-0 center Assane Sene, who is out until late February/early March.
NCSU junior center Richard Howell led the way with 11 points and 18 rebounds before falling out with 1:57 left in the game. Sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie added 17 points and five boards, and senior wing C.J. Williams added 14 points.
"Let me say, No. 1, my heart hurts for my team," Gottfried said. "I really do. I thought my team played their hearts out. They laid everything they had on the line. I feel bad for them, my guys.
"We had a night where we had some great looks and couldn't make a shot. We are a terrific foul shooting team, and we struggled at the foul line."
Williams said you never want to lose, but especially not in a grind-it-out affair that came down to the last possession.
"To lose in that fashion, as a player, you go back and think about each individual play that you could have done better to help you win, from the beginning until the end," Williams said. "They were making plays and we were making plays."
Virginia shots lights out in the first half, going 15 of 25 for 60 percent, but then struggled after halftime, going just 4 of 18. The Cavaliers still clung to their lead the entire second half.
"Our second half defense was extremely good," Gottfried said. "They went to the line 19 times in the second half (making 13), but our effort was phenomenal. I feel terrible for my team."
NC State's last lead of the game was 22-19 with 9:58 left in the first half. UVa freshman wing Malcolm Brogdon drained a three-pointer to tie the game, and Zeglinski followed with one of his four three-pointers to give the Cavaliers a 25-22 lead with 8:56 left in the first half. The two three-pointers were the impetus of an 8-0 UVa run, which helped Virginia go into halftime with a 38-31 lead.
"In the first half, we were poor defensively and they were quick to the glass and were more physical," Bennett said. "They took it at us and we weren't ready, but thankfully, we were hitting shots."
NC State charged hard in the second half to cut the lead to one point. Brown led the way with a pair of jumpers, and a nice pass to Williams, who got fouled on the play and made both free throws. Howell's aggressive drive capped the 8-0 run and cut the Cavaliers lead to 44-43 with 12:39 left in the game.
Howell picked up four of his five fouls in the second half, and went to the bench with 12:19 left, right after the Pack's big push.
Virginia responded with an 8-0 run of its own to take a 55-45 lead with 6:31 left in the game. NC State's margin for error wasn't going to be much down the stretch against the defensive-minded Cavaliers.
"I thought we got a little rattled in stretches, but whenever we did, we came back and usually hit a big shot and got to the line, and made the right kind of plays," Bennett said. "Whenever you are on the road, you try to steal them, and that's what we did."
Williams started to get free around the free-throw line area, and hit a pair of jumpers, and then the Wolfpack created their own luck. Leslie missed both free throws, but Painter fought for the offensive rebound and found a free Scott Wood in the corner, who drained a three-pointer to cut the Cavaliers' lead to 61-60 with 45 seconds left.
Virginia worked the clock down and Zeglinski missed a pull-up jumper and NC State called timeout with 7.8 seconds left to set up the final play. Gottfried said he goes by feel on whether to call timeout or let the players create in a scramble situation like he did in the win over Princeton earlier in the season.
"We thought we could get Lorenzo turning the corner at the top of the key with Scott in that far corner," Gottfried said. "I think in my opinion that he got bumped pretty hard on that dribble, but you roll with that and move on."
NC State finished shooting 40.4 percent for the game (23 of 57) and struggled at the free-throw line, going 12 of 21. Virginia tried to limit Wood's effectiveness from three-point land, and both he and the team struggled from beyond the arc, shooting 2 of 15.
"We battled and that was obvious, but we didn't finish it," Wood said. "They know who to stop and how to guard them. That is why they are going to be a top 20 team at the end of the year."
NC State won't face Virginia again in the regular season, but perhaps could meet up again in the ACC Tournament in March. Bennett was impressed with the Wolfpack.
"I think they are one of the more talented offensive teams that we've played this year," Bennett said. "They have a lot of ways to hurt you."