The game featured an ending and final score eerily similar to last year's matchup at the RBC Center, but unlike last year's 64-62 loss at the hand of a buzzer-beating tip-in by UVA's star point guard Sean Singletary, this time the Pack dodged a repeat of Cavalier heroics.
With 17 seconds remaining and NC State up 66-62, Gavin Grant and Engin Atsur both missed the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities, giving Virginia a chance. After Adrian Joseph put back an offensive rebound to draw the Cavs within two, Atsur missed his front-end with 3.2 seconds to go. The Cavaliers rebounded the miss and passed to Singletary at halfcourt, but his long three-point heave bounced off the back iron at the buzzer.
NC State coach Herb Sendek credited his players for willing the team to victory down the stretch, citing specifically the play of Atsur for helping put the Pack in a position to win.
"Engin, on at least three occasions, just exhibited tremendous will power and tenacity," said Sendek. "Just to get on the floor and harness loose balls, and just scrap and scrap. I think those kind of things allowed us to come back after losing the lead with three minutes."
Early on Atsur was literally not to be found on the floor, a rarity for NC State. Atsur was "two minutes" late for a film session, and according to team rules he did not start the game because of his tardiness. It broke a string of 78 consecutive starts for the junior guard, the second-most in NC State history.
"All of a sudden we've had a rash of tardiness," said Sendek. "We pride ourselves on doing things the right way."
Atsur entered the game at the 15:00 mark in the first half, but played out-of-sync for much of the game. He had three uncharacteristic turnovers, and didn't score until he drilled a 3-pointer with five minutes left in the game. That bucket, however, was a clutch hoop that couldn't have come at a bigger time.
Atsur's three gave NC State the lead back, 57-55, after the team surrendered it for the first time three minutes earlier, when Singletary raced back for a layup off a long rebound to put the Cavaliers ahead 53-52.
UVa responded with six straight points, and with 3:37 remaining, led 61-57. But much like Sunday's win at Clemson, NC State's seniors stepped up.
First, Ilian Evtimov converted a tough lay-up in traffic off a Tony Bethel pass. After a J.R. Reynolds free-throw put UVA up three with two minutes to go, the RBC Center faithful jumped on their feet in a frenzy when Evtimov drilled a baseline three to tie the game. On the next Cavalier possession, Atsur dove on the floor to steal the ball and called a timeout, and Cameron Bennerman rewarded his hustle on the ensuing trip with a putback of his own miss off a post-up of Reynolds, returning the lead to the Wolfpack, 64-62.
After Cedric Simmons stuffed Singletary, Evtimov found Atsur wide open under the basket off a back-screen cut to give the NC State its final total of 66 with 38 seconds to go, a lead the Wolfpack wouldn't relinquish.
Evtimov, who suffered a hip pointer in the early minutes that hindered his effectiveness, finished with four assists, six rebounds and 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Fellow senior Tony Bethel led all scorers with 16 points, and he also tallied seven rebounds and five assists with just one turnover. In his last two games, Bethel has 11 assists and just two turnovers. Simmons added 15 points and a game-high three blocks, and Bennerman chipped in 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field.
NC State shot an even 50% for the game and held UVa to 40.9% shooting from the field. The Wolfpack's tough defense and sharp-shooting offset another miserable night on the defensive glass, as the Pack gave up 12 offensive rebounds, compared to its 4, and was outrebounded 38-31 for the game. Including this victory, over the past seven games NC State has been outrebounded offensively 100-to-52, including outbursts of 21 and 22 from Boston College and Wake Forest, respectively.
"I think every team in our league is hard to keep off the offensive glass," said Sendek, before adding with a laugh, "except, maybe ours."
NC State remains alone in second place in the ACC, boasting an impressive 17-4 overall mark and a 6-2 conference record. Next up for the Wolfpack is a home game against Maryland on Sunday. Maryland is currently third in the league with a 4-2 record and faces North Carolina in a huge game for both teams Thursday night.