Is Pack Seeing Light At End Of Tunnel?

The Wolfpack players characterized last night's hard-fought victory at Georgia Tech as a "must-win" game, hopefully setting the stage for a late charge down the stretch.

Though Tony Bethel's hard charge to the basket had given the Pack a 53-51 lead at Georgia Tech with 9.8 seconds remaining, NC State knew it was in no position to celebrate. After all, this is a team that was 0-4 in end-of-game situations coming into the matchup with the Yellow Jackets. So when B.J. Elder gathered in a pass in the corner and let fly with a long three-pointer as the buzzer sounds, forgive the Wolfpack for expecting the worst.

"That ball seemed to be in the air for two hours," redshirt junior forward Ilian Evtimov told reporters afterward. "I looked at the ball and I looked at the ball and I looked at the ball. Then I saw the [light on the] backboard go red and I thought, ‘Don't tell me that ball is going in.'

"That's what has been happening to us. But it hit the rim and I was like, ‘Whew.'"

The crucial victory pushed State's record to 14-10 overall and 4-7 in the ACC, while extending the Pack's winning streak over the Jackets to six straight. While coach Herb Sendek constantly preaches "day-tight compartments" and a game-by-game approach – and rightfully so – the Wolfpack players were fully aware of exactly what was at stake against Tech.

"Everyone made big plays, big shots, big rebounds," sophomore guard Engin Atsur told the Technician. "We wanted this one more than anything."

"From now on out, every game is critical for us," senior swingman Julius Hodge told the Winston-Salem Journal. "Everybody knows the severity of the situation."

"Concerning the circumstances," Bethel told the Raleigh News & Observer, "it was a must-win."

The embattled Sendek – whose team is now 14-0 when leading with 10 minutes remaining -- made some pivotal coaching decisions in the second half that helped sway the game in the Pack's favor. With players like Jordan Collins, Cedric Simmons and Atsur riddled with foul trouble, State went to a slow-down strategy that milked the shot clock down the stretch, putting the contest in the hands of its ferocious defense.

"Usually if you hold your opponent to 53 points at home like we did you should have a good chance to win," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt told the Technician. "But we played good defense, while NC State played excellent defense tonight."

Then, after Bethel's go-ahead shot, Sendek frantically called timeout prior to the final sequence. He was concerned that Yellow Jackets point guard Jarrett Jack would be able to get to the rim in a scramble situation, so he wanted to set up his defense to take Jack out of the equation.

Both moves turned out huge for the Wolfpack, but true to form, Sendek deflected praise to his players.

"I'm so proud of our guys," Sendek, who is now 15-5 against Tech, told "They just have continued to work. They've shown great character in pulling together. They just gave a gutsy, gritty effort. They managed the game with the offense and we got back to guarding the way we're supposed to."

So despite shooting just 41.7 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent from three-point range, while shooting just two free throws, in the final 20 minutes, the Pack pulled off the big "W." Hodge was the only player in double-figures, but State held its own on the backboards against the bigger Jackets, with Bethel reeling in seven caroms.

Even thought the statistics weren't staggering and the game wasn't pretty, the Wolfpack pulled off its third conference road win. More important, NC State is starting to believe – a dangerous development for league foes down the stretch.

"We've been struggling lately, everybody knows it," Evtimov told the News & Observer. "But we're feeling pretty good, health-wise, and we were ready to play … It's far from being over. We can turn things around. We've got to believe in ourselves like we did tonight and defend like we did tonight. If so, great things are going to happen for us."

For a season thought to be on life support, State players used "seeing the light" imagery to describe the possibilities of resuscitating the campaign.

"I saw the light," Bethel told the Charlotte Observer, "and went to the basket."

"We're in the hole right now, but we can see the light," added Evtimov. "There's nothing impossible, nothing we can't do."

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