Kendall Marshall scores the go-ahead basket in the final seconds against Alex Johnson during the semifinals of the 2012 ACC Men's Basketball Conference Tournament.
You may have heard that Karl Hess opted to not work the ACC Tournament this year. He hasn't worked an N.C. State game since he ejected Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta from the Wolfpack-Florida State game on February 18th, although he continued to ref other ACC games, including the Duke-UNC game in Cameron. The stated reason was because he did not want to be a distraction, and he obviously thinks Wolfpack fans would be a little referee-focused should he find himself sharing a floor with their team. And considering Debbie Yow awarded Corchiani and Gugliotta's 1988-1989 team with an inaugural "Wolfpack Unlimited" award at the team's next home game, that was a pretty good guess.
Well, it turns out State fans are going to be pretty obsessed with the refereeing nonetheless, as C.J. Leslie was whistled for his fifth foul with eight minutes left in the game., sending to the bench the Wolfpack's leading scorer with 22 point and 7 rebounds. The fifth foul was legitimate; the fourth, less than a minute earlier when Justin Watts drew a charge, was less defensible. Remember that it was a charge – that will be important later.
Things to note about Leslie's ejection. At the time, UNC had a five point lead, having capped a 17-6 run to come back from six down. James Michael McAdoo, DeShawn Painter, and Richard Howell were all on their respective benches with four fouls – none would foul out – which is why Watts was defending Leslie in the first place. Tyler Zeller had scored the Heels' previous nine points while playing with three fouls. He would foul out, but not until two minutes remained, having scored only two free throws the rest of the way. And crucially, State would go on a 9-4 run following his ejection, as Lorenzo Brown in particular got extremely fired up.
Brown would finish with 16 points and six assists, including the Wolfpack's last three buckets from the field, and was the big reason why the game was knotted at 66 with 1:31 remaining. UNC's own disjointed offense, which even before Zeller fouled out was settling for bad jumpshots helped, but when Reggie Bullock missed the three that drew Zeller's fifth on the rebound, State had a chance to bury some demons and put the game away.
Instead, Painter only made one of two free throws. Carolina's next possession was still chaotic. After an excellent McAdoo pick had the Heels basically playing five-on-four, Barnes lost the handle on the ball while driving (he does that a lot) and settled for a bad jumper. The shot drew contact and a foul – one that no one really complains about – and Barnes was able to make one of two free throws to tie the game.
And here's what will be lost in the complaints about the refs to follow. State comes out of the timeout with 58 seconds remaining, and Alex Johnson promptly throws the ball out-of-bounds on a pass to Brown. Carolina burnt most of the shot clock, and then Marshall drove on Johnson. There was contact; Johnson went to the ground easily, and Marshall, left open, sinks the jumper. It was a call no ref was going to make with fifteen seconds remaining, but it was eerily similar to C.J. Leslie's dubious fourth nine minutes prior. Mark Gottfried goes ballistic, to the point referee requested he be quiet in a slightly impolite manner. But it's only a two-point game, remember.
And it would remain one. On State's final possession, Justin Watts dashed through the lane to intercept a Scott Wood pass, and as he falls out-of-bounds launches the ball across the court. It was a heads-up play, one of many Watts had on defense in the second half. By doing so, State had 1.2 seconds to inbound the ball from in front of their own free throw line. The cross-court lob to Richard Howell was knocked by half a dozen hands; Howell wanted a foul, but with no one in control of the ball and everyone reaching for the same goal, he wasn't going to get it. It will, however, become another piece of Wolfpack lore, where the conference – you don't want to hear the Swofford conspiracy theories – pulled the rug out from under N.C. State.
When you consider UNC played one of the better post teams in the conference without John Henson, still nursing his wrist, it wasn't that bad of an outcome. Tyler Zeller quietly wracked up a team-high 23 points and 9 rebounds, despite being double and triple-teamed. McAdoo stumbled into foul trouble early and played only 27 minutes; Desmond Hubert surprisingly did not, but played an ineffectual only five. UNC instead went small, and with Bullock and P.J. Hairston both cold, relied on Barnes and Marshall to carry the team through. Watts, as tenacious as he was on defense, blew some easy layups. Luckily the Heels were able to lock down much of the Wolfpack's perimeter scoring, as State only hit three threes. It's become obvious from the game commentary that a lot of folks still don't respect Carolina's defense, especially in Henson's absence. But this team buckled down a pulled out a gritty win, all but ensuring themselves a number one seed.
Of course, that assumes a rational selection committee, and with a lot of teams with similar resumes all jockeying for one and two seeds nothing is certain. State is looking at a different bubble. Not long after the game, committee chair Jeff Hathaway said the 37 at-large teams were decided, and would only be bumped by teams winning conference championships. Whether that bodes well for the Wolfpack remains to be seen. Four wins in the last two weeks, including wins over Miami and Virginia helps, and there are very few bad losses on their record (Georgia Tech at home is by far the worst). I'd send them on, but I'm not in the room.
UNC gets to play on Sunday against either Florida State or Duke, and presumably without Henson. Beating either would be tough, but avenging the loss in Tallahassee would be greater motivation than a dull slog against a Duke team missing Ryan Kelly. I'm rooting for the option that produces the tougher final (FSU), but I'm not sure many fans are expecting the Heels to cut the nets down tomorrow.