Pack Loses Heartbreaker At Buzzer

<B>RALEIGH, NC --</b> On an emotional, controversial Senior Night for NC State, Wake Forest's Chris Paul hit a runner at the buzzer to lift the Demon Deacons past the Wolfpack, 55-53.

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    If Raleigh didn't have a Public Enemy No. 1 before tonight's NC State-Wake Forest game at the RBC Center, it does now. After cheap-shotting the Pack's Julius Hodge, then drawing a phantom technical foul in the first half, the Deacs' Chris Paul hit a runner at the buzzer to lift the Demon Deacons to a 55-53 win over the Wolfpack. The ending left State fans howling and the Pack players despondent in the postgame locker room, and dealt the Wolfpack's NCAA Tournament hopes a devastating, demoralizing blow.

    A layup by Tony Bethel lifted NC State to a 50-46 lead with 3:27 left, but the Pack went nearly three minutes without scoring, when another Bethel layup put the Wolfpack up, 52-50, with 47 seconds remaining. Bethel was fouled with 22 seconds left, but could only hit one of two to push the Pack lead up to three, 53-50. Wake's Justin Gray countered with a deep three-pointer over Engin Atsur to tie the game with 14 seconds remaining, and Atsur raced upcourt after the inbounds. He pulled up for a three-pointer from the top of the key, but came up short after he was hit on the elbow. No foul was called, and the airball gave Wake Forest possession with 3.3 seconds left, but after a review, the clock was reset to 4.2 seconds. Paul appeared to travel while in-bounding the ball, but got the ball back and flew up the court, hitting a leaping leaner from the right wing as the buzzer sounded, dealing the Wolfpack one of the most difficult defeats in recent memory.

    After an emotional Senior Night ceremony honoring seniors Hodge, Jordan Collins and Levi Watkins, the Pack struggled early on. Atsur hit a layup to open the scoring, but the Demon Deacons scored nine in a row. A Collins layup and a three-pointer by Ilian Evtimov trimmed the deficit to two at 9-7, but Wake Forest then went on a 7-2 run. Another Evtimov three-pointer made it 16-12, Deacs, before the Paul-Hodge confrontation occurred with 12:48 left in the half.

    After vying for a rebound, Paul sucker-punched Hodge in the lower abdomen, sending Hodge crashing to the court. Play was stopped to allow Hodge to gather himself, and when he rose to his feet, he angrily gestured toward Paul on the Wake Forest bench. The cheap shot incensed the RBC Center crowd, and Paul was lustily booed every time he touched the ball thereafter.

    A little more than four minutes later, Paul fouled Hodge on a drive, then, knowing the referees were watching closely, flopped to the ground, drawing an unexplained technical on Hodge. The ensuring free throws by Paul pushed the Demon Deacons ahead by 11, 28-17. The Wolfpack would get as close as seven points before the half closed with the visitors ahead by eight, 35-27.

    Lost in the all the extracurricular activity in the opening half was a danger sign for the Pack: an inability to convert free throws. State shot just 6-of-14 from the charity stripe in the first half, and only Evtimov (13 points in 17 minutes) seemed to be in a groove to start the contest. He drilled 3-of-4 from downtown in the opening 20 minutes, while the rest of the team was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. The Wolfpack earned a stalemate on the backboards against the bigger Deacs, 17-17, but couldn't find any flow offensively.

    A layup by Paul quickly pushed the Wake Forest advantage to 10, 37-27, after intermission, but NC State came back with an 11-2 run, cutting the margin to one at 39-38. The teams fought ferociously back and forth, with each possession turning into a slugfest. The Demon Deacons scored just five points in the first 12-plus minutes of the second half, while the Pack scratched and clawed its way back into the contest. A three-pointer by Evtimov finally put the Wolfpack on top, 42-40, with 10:05 left, and the teams exchanged leads. A three-point shot by Atsur pushed the Wolfpack ahead by three at 48-45 with 4:28 remaining, setting up the heart-breaking final sequence for State.

    Evtimov paced State with 19 points – the only NC State player in double-digits -- and six rebounds. Atsur added nine points while Hodge and Bethel each chipped in with eight. However, the 9-for-22 effort from the free-throw line doomed the Wolfpack, with crucial misfire after crucial misfire keeping the Demon Deacons in the game. Evtimov (2-for-6) and Hodge (2-for-7) were the biggest offenders from the line, and an emotional Hodge told the media afterward that he felt he let his teammates down in his final regular-season home game. However, the Pack also surrendered 14 offensive rebounds, ruining perhaps the finest defensive effort of coach Herb Sendek's tenure. When push came to shove, Gray and Paul showed why they form one of the nation's finest backcourts, each making remarkable shots at key moments to lift the visitors to victory.

    The Pack was dealt a further blow when Sendek revealed that Collins suffered a separated shoulder before fouling out of the game, an injury that is likely to sideline the senior big man for the ACC Tournament.

    Following the contest, speculation centered around two burning questions: Would Paul be suspended for the first game of the ACC Tournament by the league administration? And what scenarios are left for NC State (17-12 overall, 7-9 in league play) to earn a bid to the "Big Dance," beyond winning the ACC Tournament? Neither query can be answered immediately, but the Wolfpack is left knowing that it let a golden opportunity slip out of its grasp on an emotional, controversial evening.

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