More than 19,000 heartbroken North Carolina State fans filed out of the PNC Arena into the chilly night Saturday, silenced, gutted and in disbelief. They had just watched University of Miami center Reggie Johnson tip in the game-winning shot with 0.8 seconds remaining to give the 14th-ranked Hurricanes a 79-78 victory over the 19th-ranked Wolfpack.
Meanwhile, in the bowels of the arena, the UM celebration continued. Hurricane players, giddy and still admittedly stunned, emerged from their locker room to the cheers of about 100 family and friends decked in green and orange. Some had flown in from Miami, others drove in from nearby North Carolina towns.
There were hugs and high-fives all around. Players recorded the moment with their cellphones and couldn’t stop smiling.
The Little Team That Could had done it again. On the road. In front of a national TV audience and a hostile crowd that screamed its lungs out from the highest rafters. The Hurricanes improved to 17-3 and remain the only undefeated team in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 8-0 record, including five wins on the road.
N.C. State was 12-0 at home heading into Saturday’s game, and UM had never won a game here.
“That was one heck of a college basketball game in a tremendous environment,” UM coach Jim Larranaga said. “If you would have told me before the game that they’d shoot 53 percent from the field, 44 percent from three-point and 85 percent from the free-throw line, I’d have thought we lost the game. Reggie Johnson came up with a huge, huge tip-in. It was a great, great team victory for us.”
Johnson’s left-handed tip in traffic off a Shane Larkin miss was just one of many thrilling plays in a game that saw the Hurricanes lead by as many as nine and the Wolfpack by as many as 10 in the second half.
Johnson finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, his best game since returning from a broken left thumb on Jan. 23. He was one of five Canes in double figures. Durand Scott led the way with 18, Durham native Julian Gamble had 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and Larkin and Kenny Kadji each scored 13.
UM made only three of its 21 three-point attempts, but made up for it with tenacious defense and the inside play of Gamble and Johnson.
Rodney Purvis heaved a desperation jumper at the buzzer, and it when it clanked off, Johnson sprinted over to the scorer’s table, yanked proudly on his jersey and roared. Then, he raced across the court and stood on a chair on the UM bench, faced the small contingent of Hurricane fans and roared again.
“It was something I will remember for the rest of my life,” Johnson said. “Before the game some fans were yelling stuff at us, and I just wanted to go over and show off my Miami jersey in front of them. It was big time for us, to come here and win in front of that crowd.
“Beating Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, these are schools that passed up on guys playing at Miami right now, so beating these teams is very special. I’m not sure what people think of us now, but they should respect us. People think we’re good, but I think we’ve got a great team. We can make noise come March.”
Larranaga said he felt comfortable in the final seconds and never panicked.
“We had the ball, and we knew what we wanted to do,” he said. “We told Shane to use the ball screens, they’ll switch, and then just attack and big guys go to boards. Reggie was right where he was supposed to be. When it went in, I thought, ‘Good win, we got to get ready for Boston College.’ I know that sounds crazy, but that’s exactly how I feel. We’re gonna get Boston College’s best shot on Tuesday. Can’t rest on your laurels.”
C.J. Leslie had 18 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Wolfpack (16-6, 5-4). They played without starting point guard Lorenzo Brown, who injured his ankle in the previous game. Freshman Tyler Lewis, a 5-11 fan favorite, filled in for Brown with 16 points and five assists. Richard Howell scored 15 and Purvis 13.
“Well, that’s a heartbreaker,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “It comes down to a play. Reggie makes a great tip, give him credit, he stayed with the play. Rodney did a great job to make Larkin take a tough shot, but the ball comes right off the rim in the most perfect spot. We didn’t make the play, they did. It’s a game of seconds and inches.”
Gamble was elated.
“We have no quit in us,” he said. “We’re not gonna stop until it’s all zeroes on the clock. Even in heat of moment, Coach L calmed us down, reminded us to go out and have fun playing with our teammates. And we did. That was a lot of fun.”