With a little luck, NC State prolongs underdog ACC tourney run

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WASHINGTON — North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts had an order for his players before the team left Monday for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

“I said bring something that’s lucky to you because we’re going to have some luck and we’re going to have some outstanding situations,” Keatts said.

That premonition rang true in Friday night’s semifinal against Virginia.

The game was all but out of the Wolfpack’s control as the Cavaliers’ Isaac McKneely toed the free-throw line for a one-and-one, with five seconds left in the second half and Virginia leading 58-55.

But McKneely’s first free throw clanged off the rim, giving NC State one final chance to tie.

So, were any players holding on to a good-luck charm?

“I don’t know if any of them listened to me,” Keatts said.

Regardless, the ensuing sequence was nothing short of magical.

Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell secured the rebound and flung the ball up the left sideline to guard Michael O’Connell, who took four dribbles as he raced to the left wing to launch a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.

O’Connell and his teammates on the bench behind him watched in unison as his heave banked off the backboard, rolled around the rim and fell in to tie the game at 58, summoning a roar from the astonished NC State crowd.

“All the wind had left my body and then it all came back in that moment,” Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. said. “Crazy.”

Added forward Ben Middlebrooks: “It felt like it was in slow motion.”

NC State surged ahead to win 73-65 in overtime, prolonging what has been a scintillating run throughout the ACC tournament. The Wolfpack arrived in Washington as little more than an afterthought following a four-game losing streak to end the regular season that left them as the No. 10 seed.

But after their fourth win in as many days, the Wolfpack are one victory away from securing an improbable automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. After knocking off Louisville, Syracuse, 11th-ranked Duke and Virginia, NC State takes on top-seeded and fourth-ranked North Carolina in Saturday’s ACC championship.

Only one other double-digit seed has ever reached the league’s title game. That would be NC State, as the No. 10 seed in 2007, when it lost to the rival Tar Heels.

O’Connell’s cold-blooded bucket Friday capped a frantic flurry from the Wolfpack, who trailed by six points with 51 seconds left against the third-best scoring defense in Division I.

The shot also salvaged an otherwise putrid perimeter performance from NC State. The Wolfpack finished 3-of-17 from 3-point range.

O’Connell, a 35.5 percent 3-point shooter, entered Friday having made 6 of 8 triples throughout the tournament. The senior hit NC State’s lone 3-pointer of the second half leading up to the closing seconds and said he felt confident as he stepped into his heroic shot.

“At first, I was kind of just staring at it, like, ‘Oh my God, I just made the shot,'” O’Connell said. “And then I realized we can really do this. We can get to the championship.”

NC State lost twice to the Tar Heels during the regular season, but this past week has wiped out any reason to take stock in those meetings.

The Wolfpack are dangerous, and they know it.

“Even through the ups and downs of the season, we all love each other,” Morsell said. “We put too much work in to let a tough time be the end. That’s pretty much our mindset … whatever happens, we’re battle-tested.”