So during some late breaks, Mike Krzyzewski turned control of the huddle over to the players, and that strategy led to his latest milestone victory.
"He kind of let us decide what we were going to do with the game," guard Jon Scheyer said, "because for a lot of it, we weren't doing the things that (the coaches) told us to do."
Nelson and Scheyer both scored 19 points for the Blue Devils (25-3, 12-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who used a game-closing 14-5 run to take their only lead of the half, win their third straight and snap a two-game losing streak away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"For a couple of late timeouts, I let anyone who would actually want to talk — and say something that somebody would listen to - run the huddle," Krzyzewski said. "Teams become really good when they talk to each other. What happens is, they take ownership. We never took ownership of this game until late in the second half."
Ben McCauley scored 19 points for N.C. State (15-14, 4-11), and he made one of two free throws with 1:11 remaining to put the Wolfpack up 86-85. He fouled Nelson 10 seconds later, and the Duke captain — a 45 percent free throw shooter in his previous six games — knocked down both.
"If I would have made that, we're in overtime right now," McCauley said.
Instead, he turned it over on N.C. State's next possession with 40 seconds remaining, and Duke ran down the clock, with Scheyer missing a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left. Courtney Fells got the rebound and pushed the ball to McCauley, whose 3 from about 30 feet bounced off the glass as time expired.
"I tried getting as close as I could, and it really wasn't even a shot — I just threw it up and hoped and prayed that it went in. Unfortunately, it didn't," said McCauley, who as the buzzer sounded collapsed to the court with his jersey pulled over his head.
Greg Paulus scored 15 points and hit two 3s during Duke's frenetic comeback, sparking the burst by connecting from the top of the key with 3:52 remaining to make it 81-76. The Blue Devils hit five 3-pointers in the final 7½ minutes.
"N.C. State really outplayed us the whole game except for the last 8 minutes," Nelson said. "Everything was going for them, but the thing about it is, we pulled together as a team. ... It just clicked for us — in the last 8 minutes, we started making the plays that we needed to win."
Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson had 12 points apiece for the Blue Devils, who made Krzyzewski the sixth Division I men's coach to reach the milestone. Coach K did it in his 1,064th game — only Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith did it in fewer games - and is 800-264 in his 33rd season.
"It is hard to put it in perspective because ... you're coaching this team, and it's more important what this team is doing than what you've done with other teams," Krzyzewski said.
This one might have been one of his most improbable victories, if only because N.C. State — with coach Sidney Lowe sporting the same candy-apple red blazer that was the rage of last year's run to the ACC championship game — put forth its most inspired effort of an otherwise disappointing season.
Still, it wasn't enough to prevent its seventh straight loss and avoid becoming the first team this season with 11 conference losses.
"We've been saying this all year - if we come out and play like that, we can play with anyone," Lowe said. "We need more guys to be ready to play. We need guys to be unselfish. We did all of that today, and it was great to see that if we can do that against the top teams in the country, we should be able to do it against anyone. We have to judge ourselves and play a certain way ourselves, and not up to the opponent."
Freshman Javier Gonzalez added a season-high 18 points and fellow rookie Tracy Smith had a season-high 14 in his first start for the Wolfpack, who led most of the game. They took a 70-57 lead on McCauley's jumper with 12:41 remaining and for a time maintained it by making 22 of their first 23 foul shots.
But down the stretch, they went 3-of-6 over the final 2½ minutes, with Gonzalez going 2-of-4.