ATLANTA - NC State and UNC pounded it inside for the first 37 minutes, but the inside players needed an assist from their point guards down the stretch.
North Carolina sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall drove hard to the rim for a short shot with 10 seconds remaining to lift the Tar Heels past the Wolfpack 69-67 on Saturday in the ACC Tournament semifinals at Philips Arena.
No. 4-ranked UNC (29-4) advanced to the title game to face the winner of Duke/Florida State, while NC State (22-12) await to learn its NCAA Tournament fate at 6 p.m. Sunday.
NC State sophomore point guard Lorenzo Brown was poised to take over the game down the stretch to pick up the slack for his teammates. He tied the game 66-66 with a thunderous drive and dunk through traffic for an eventual three-point play after making the free throw with 1:31 left.
Brown was hoping to be the playmaker again, but he had a miscommunication with fifth-year senior backup point guard Alex Johnson, which resulted in a difficult turnover with 42.6 seconds left.
"We had to step it up the best way we could," Brown said. "He [Johnson] told me the guy was right on my hip, but I didn't feel anything. He kind of paused and I turned around to see if the guy was there, and when I turned around, he passed me the ball.
"I felt that I could score any time I wanted to with [UNC sophomore Harrison] Barnes and other guys on me."
Marshall came down and executed what the Tar Heels wanted, and Johnson tried in vain to draw a charge against the power floor general.
"I thought we defended him pretty well," NCSU coach Mark Gottfried said. "Our thought our defense was pretty good, but they had good patience, poise. I thought Alex did a really good job defending, but unfortunately, he made a tough shot. Give him credit and give their team credit. They made that play."
The difference between the two teams proved to be minimal, and the Wolfpack couldn't avoid any empty trips or shots outside of their comfort level. NCSU finished with 10 assists and 16 turnovers.
NC State had two last gasps at pulling out the win in the final seconds. Junior small forward Scott Wood tried to squeeze in a pass to a temporarily open DeShawn Painter, but UNC senior forward Justin Watts recovered quickly enough to intercept the pass intended to the Wolfpack backup junior center.
UNC subsequently threw the ensuing pass toward its end of the court, and Johnson tracked it down and called timeout with 0.6 seconds left. The Wolfpack tried a Hail Mary pass, but it wasn't answered.
"I'm proud of our team, and I think their effort was just amazing," Gottfried said. "We are disappointed tremendously. They battled with tremendous heart and came up a little short."
NC State hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament since 2006, and seniors such as C.J. Williams and Johnson, are hoping to experience the thrill for the first time.
"The selection committee has a job to do, and hopefully, they see us in the tournament," Williams said. "You don't have any control over it. It's tough, but hopefully, they'll see it the way we see it."
Both teams played without their star post players at the end for different reasons. NC State sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie continued his recent stretch of dominating play with 22 points and seven minutes in just 29 minutes of action. However, he fouled out with 8:03 left in the game.
"C.J. is one of our best players and we need him in the game, every moment of the game," Brown said. "He tried to go for the block and he ended up fouling, which hurt him at the time."
Gottfried said after the game that the coaching staff had a miscommunication after Leslie's fourth foul at the 8:35 mark when he was called for charging. He would have taken him out if he knew he had picked up his fourth foul.
"There was a miscommunication by our staff, and that is our responsibility," Gottfried said. "The two fouls happened so fast, boom-boom. Our other bigs had four fouls too, so we were in a quandary either way. We were in a tough situation there."
UNC played without senior center Tyler Zeller over the final 1:08 after he fouled out. Zeller carried the Tar Heels offense with 23 points and nine rebounds in trying to answer Leslie's production. The Tar Heels were also without junior power forward John Henson, who injured his wrist Friday against Maryland.
"They were going inside every trip," Gottfried said. "We were trying with smoke and mirrors a little bit to survive down there with all of our big guys."
NC State flirted with building a double-digit lead early in the second half, going up 46-39 following a Johnson three-pointer with 16:07 remaining. Barnes led the UNC comeback with six points during a 11-0 run to take a 50-46 lead with 12:15 left.
NC State recovered and battled through the adversity, showing signs of its maturity.
"We have come a long way and have gotten a lot better," Gottfried said. "This is just a tough one to take."
NC State did a great job of shutting down the North Carolina wings, holding sophomores Barnes and Reggie Bullock, freshman P.J. Hairston and Watts, to a collective 7 for 28 from the field (25 percent) and 3 for 15 from three-point land (20 percent). Barnes' likely biggest contribution to the Tar Heels was drawing Leslie's fifth foul.
NC State proved to be the aggressor through most of the first half.
The Wolfpack, in particular Leslie, kept attacking the rim and it eventually led to Henson's replacement, freshman power forward James Michael McAdoo to get serious foul trouble.
Leslie's foul issues were spotlighted by having junior center Richard Howell already with four fouls with 12:24 left in the game, and Painter picked up his fourth with 10:55 remaining. Howell and Painter were able to avoid fouling out, with the former collecting 11 points and 12 rebounds.
"We played through it and coach has this thing about playing through everything," Williams said. "You have to play through foul trouble. You have to play through people fouling out or teams making runs. You have to play through your own mistakes.
"I feel like we have definitely matured to where we have gotten to that point where we just play."
The foul trouble and battles with various referees has been a season-long issue with the Wolfpack program, likely starting when Wood got called for a controversial fragrant foul against Indiana on Nov. 30, 2011.
"We had to overcome a lot of foul trouble and fight through a lot of different things throughout the game, but our kids never quit," Gottfried said. "I can't talk about that [officials] or I'll get fined."
UNC concentrated on driving to the basket or getting the ball inside to Zeller to compound the inside issues. Marshall finished with 12 points and 10 assists, while Barnes finished with 16 points on 3 of 12 shooting.