"Tonight we came out as the scrappy, sewer-rat NC State we were missing since the beginning of the ACC season," forward Ilian Evtimov said after the win over Maryland on Feb. 16. "And I think the last two games and some of Wake Forest, we're showing a little bit of that. And that's how we've got to be.
"If somebody is going to the hole, somebody has to reach for the ball, when it's on the ground, dive on the ball, just be scratching, not let them breathe."
Despite the impressive victories at Georgia Tech and over the Terps, the Wolfpack certainly doesn't have any breathing room when it comes to NCAA Tournament aspirations. However, the elevation of the Pack's stingy defense has put more emphasis on each and every possession, and opponents are finding it more and more difficult to guard State in the halfcourt.
Against Maryland, Julius Hodge's drive-and-kick game freed up open three-pointers, and when the Terrapins changed defenses to guard against the perimeter, guards Engin Atsur and Tony Bethel repeatedly burned the Terps on backdoors. It's a recipe that makes NC State a dangerous team down the stretch.
"We just ran our offense and this offense is really hard to guard," said Atsur. "We cut really hard and we do a lot of cuts, and people don't want to guard them. We just stayed with it and were patient, and we were really unselfish today. We made the extra pass and we have good shooters and we can all make the shots.
"Teams have been taking away our backdoors and they think it's the only option. But we are using other options now and [when] they close the other options, we can go backdoor."
There's still a question of whether the Wolfpack is up against the issue of too little, too late. State is in the mix for the "Big Dance," but even if the ACC gets six bids, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami, NC State and perhaps even Virginia will likely be fighting for three available spots.
The Pack knows it has put itself in dire straits, which leads to small pangs of regret of opportunities lost earlier in the campaign. However, it also realizes it has no time for such emotions.
"I wish we have played better in previous games, but we can't try to go back now," said Atsur. "We have the rest of the regular season. We have four games left and we just have to play harder. I think it's the right time to play good right now in all of our games and just finish the season strong."
"We're feeling like we're playing good basketball right now," said Bethel. "But we know we have so much more work to do, and all the guys know we've got to get back in the gym and work and work for UNC. Just because we're winning, they're not going to come in here and lay down.
"They certainly gave it to us at their place, and we just need to prepare for them now. And that's what we're looking forward to."
Starting with the Tar Heels tomorrow at the RBC Center, the Wolfpack closes the season knowing it needs to win three of four. NC State hosts Virginia Tech on Feb. 26, travels to Virginia on March 2, then closes with a home matchup with Wake Forest on March 6. Securing three victories in that span would put history squarely on the Pack's side: since 1992, 56 of 59 teams that have finished 8-8 or better in the ACC have made the NCAA Tournament.
And signs are in place that the Wolfpack is starting to find its stride. Spreading the floor is paying dividends; 22 of the 25 field goals against Maryland were assisted. Also, the free-throw shooting is coming around; in the wins over the Jackets and Terps, NC State knocked down 30 of 35, with Hodge dropping in 11 of 12.
With three of the last four at home, one of the "X" factors for the Pack could be the atmosphere at the RBC Center.
"We need our crowd. We have to show them that we are a good team and we can win, so that was good for our crowd and for ourselves, too," Atsur said. "To beat a good team like Maryland, we proved that we are a good team and we are confident right now. And we just have to keep working harder."
"That's very important," Bethel said. "The crowd did a good job tonight; they were into the game the whole game, and that's what we need here coming down the home stretch."
So many wrote off State so long ago that belief appears to be coming only from within the team. However, it's in such scenarios that a bunker mentality can often give rise to the us-against-the-world confidence necessary for a late-season run.
"People are going to have their opinions about this team, but we know the talent, the athleticism and the great ball shooting we have collectively," said Hodge.
"And we're going to continue to work hard and defy the odds."