ATLANTA — NC State and Virginia have a tendency to play until the final possession.
The stakes were higher for both teams and the rematch more than lived up to expectations at Philips Arena on Friday in the ACC Tournament.
Virginia sophomore small forward Joe Harris got a good look from three-point land and missed with the Cavaliers trailing by three. NC State sophomore point guard Lorenzo Brown was fouled with 7.2 seconds left in the game and made both free throws to preserve the eventual 67-64 win.
The Wolfpack players celebrated afterwards like a squad that believes it has snapped a five-year drought from reaching the NCAA Tournament. NC State improved to 22-11 overall and features key wins over Virginia, Texas and twice over Miami.
"I'm tremendously proud of my team," NCSU first-year coach Mark Gottfried said. "This was a big win, tough, grinding win against a really good team and a hard team to play against.
"I think we deserve to play in the NCAA Tournament, but obviously, I'm not on the committee."
NCSU will get another great chance to improve its postseason resume by playing North Carolina at 1 p.m. Saturday in the ACC Tournament semifinals. UNC swept the regular season series, but could be playing without junior power forward John Henson, who injured his wrist against Maryland earlier Friday.
The close ending mirrored the previous meeting. Virginia edged NC State 61-60 on Jan. 28 in Raleigh, N.C., after Brown had a chance to tie the game, but missed his three-point attempt at the buzzer.
"This is just beautiful at the moment," Brown said.
The rematch promised to be another grind-it-out affair, though there were some subtle changes between the programs over the last six weeks.
NC State sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie has emerged as the Wolfpack's go-to player over the last month. He delivered in the rematch with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.
"Coach Gottfried has done an amazing job with me, and he keeps me in the game and just tells me I can do it," Leslie said. "He sticks with me through adversity and all the tough times I've had. He makes sure that my head is in the right place at game time."
Virginia struggled to match up against the athletic forward, who went 9 of 11 from the field and recorded his fifth double-double over his last six games.
"Calvin has played against some of the toughest competition, and I always say great players take their teams to great heights," Gottfried said. "He has lifted his game a livel, which is impressive to me. I thought there were times today where he just took it over."
UVa sophomore Akil Mitchell, who attended Charlotte Christian, did his best against Leslie, and had one of his best games of the season with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Star teammate Mike Scott, who also guarded Leslie at times, was impressed by his progress.
"He's a very good player, who is long, athletic, and he really took it to us today," Scott said.
The short-handed Cavaliers were down to seven healthy scholarship players and didn't have many options against the Wolfpack's frontcourt. UVa lost a pair of players to injuries — 7-foot senior center Assane Sene and freshman wing Malcolm Brogdon — along with two other players that transferred at the mid-semester point. Virginia's bench played a combined 13 minutes and went 0 for 1 for zero points.
NC State shot 54 percent from the field, the Wolfpack's best showing against an ACC opponent this season, which helped overcome its 8 of 18 shooting at the free throw line.
NC State's execution combined with a few lucky bounces helped build a small cushion throughout the game. The tricky part proved to be in turning a 4-to-6-point lead into anything higher than nine.
Virginia jumped out to an early 9-3 lead, but back-to-back Leslie baskets, plus junior center Richard Howell's steal and layup closed the gap and got NC State back on track.
NC State junior small forward Scott Wood ended the first half in style with a three-pointer and he was fouled on the play with 0.4 seconds left. Wood converted the free throw and the Wolfpack went into halftime with a 36-33 lead. NC State senior wing C.J. Williams drained a three-pointer to end the first half Thursday against Boston College, creating some déjà vu momentum leading into the second half.
"I thought that was big and we did that yesterday as well," Gottfried said. "I thought Scott's shot gave us a nice little pep in the step going into the locker room, which we didn't have."
NC State made its move when Brown hit a three-pointer, followed by Leslie connecting on a basket and getting fouled (but he missed the free throw), and Wood made a back-breaking three during the Wolfpack's 8-2 run to build a 58-49 lead with 6:04 left in the game.
NC State has struggled this season in stretching out leads, and missed out on a few other opportunities during the 8-2 run. The lack of continuing to feed Leslie in the post caught up to the Wolfpack when Virginia mounted its final run.
Scott and Harris kept Virginia's offense afloat with a combined 41 points — Scott finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Harris added 18. Both were critical in UVa's rally to cut the NCSU lead to 62-60 with 2:18 left in the game. Scott scored six points and Harris added five during the stretch.
The last two minutes were up for grabs and the team with the most mental toughness and execution was coming away a winner. Virginia flinched first when NC State double-teamed Scott in the post, freeing up an open junior point guard Jontel Evans on a three-pointer, which missed. Scott couldn't convert on Virginia's next trip down, opening the door for NC State to pull away.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett was surprised at how NC State was able to score in transition and some easy dunks. He also pointed out that the Cavaliers struggled from three-point range (2 of 12).
"I told our guys after the game that they certainly showed their heart with the way they battled," Bennett said. "I want to look at the film to see if we used our head enough at times. They certainly took it to us with the way they started.
"We had our opportunity at the end to tie it or push ahead, and we got some good looks and didn't capitalize on them. NC State was certainly aggressive and played well."
Only NC State's free throw shooting allowed for Harris to have a chance at possibly forcing overtime. The Wolfpack went 5 for 10 at the line over the last 2:02 of the game.
"Early in the year, we played a great schedule but we just sometimes weren't good enough," Gottfried said. "Now, this team is learning how to execute their offense in late-game tough situations, [and] get a defensive stop at a tough time, so it's a process."
Brown finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists, to complement Leslie's production on the inside. Howell added 10 points and four rebounds.
"I just tried to help my team the best way that I can," Brown said. "I just tried to help this guy right here [Leslie]. Him and Richard were working down in the post, and I was trying to do something for the guards."
NC State views North Carolina as the third of four steps in achieving one of its big goals.
"We all have great respect for North Carolina's team, and our players know that," Gottfried said. "When we got on the plane the other day to come here, we came with a goal to win the tournament. The surest way of being an NCAA Tournament participant is to win your conference tournament, which is what we've come to do."