ATLANTA -- Just how nerve-wracking was NC State's 67-64 ACC quarterfinal win against Virginia on Friday afternoon? NC State athletic director Debbie Yow decided she couldn't bear to watch, instead choosing to pace the hallways of Philips Arena while relying on her husband William for updates via cell phone.
Why the angst for Ms. Yow, and the rest of the Pack faithful? With bubble teams playing their way out of the NCAA tournament around the country, NC State had a great opportunity to pick up that elusive quality win it has been seeking and force the committee take a long look at the Wolfpack.
For Yow, an NCAA berth would be an immediate return on the investment she made in coach Mark Gottfried, whom she plucked from ESPN last April to replace Sidney Lowe. NC State has missed all five tournaments since the underappreciated Herb Sendek left for Arizona State, and the Pack was picked eighth in the ACC this preseason.
But Gottfried is at least in position to plead his case to the selection committee, mostly because of the play of sophomore C.J. Leslie, who stood up to ACC first-teamer Mike Scott on Friday and delivered a clutch performance. Leslie was 9-for-11 from the floor and finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three assists, leading the desperate Wolfpack to its second win in as many days.
"Calvin has played against some of the toughest competition," said Gottfried, who prefers to call Leslie by his birth name. "Great players take their teams to great heights. He took his game to another level today, which is impressive to me. There were times today where he just took it over."
One of the game's biggest plays came when Leslie wrested an offensive rebound away from the powerful Scott along the baseline and kicked it out to Scott Wood for a three-pointer. The bucket pushed NC State's lead to 58-49 with six minutes left, and the Pack had enough to hold on.
"We had a rebound corralled and Leslie took it from us and hit a three," said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. "That was a pivotal play."
Leslie started strong, scoring eight points in the game's first eight minutes, but he had to sit the final 5:28 of the first half with two fouls, during which a six-point NC State lead turned into a one-point Virginia advantage until Wood converted on a four-point play with less than a second to play in the half.
Leslie would not commit another foul on the day as he outhustled Scott, who finished with 23 points and 10 boards.
"He's a great player," Leslie said of Scott. "You can't take anything from him. He hit a lot of tough shots. We answered back and came out with a victory."
The Wolfpack will go up against No. 4 North Carolina on Saturday, a team that beat NC State by 19 and 12 in their two regular-season meetings. One potential positive for NC State came in the day's first quarterfinal, when UNC's John Henson sprained his left wrist and sat out the second half. X-rays were negative, and reserve big man James Michael McAdoo played very well in his absence (14 points, 8 rebounds in 29 minutes), but should Henson miss the game, that should at least help the underdog Wolfpack's chances.
NC State enters Saturday's conference semifinal at 21-11 and an RPI somewhere in the 40s. With Miami, Texas and Virginia hovering around the 50-mark, NC State's record vs. the Top 50 may include as many as four wins, which was its biggest blemish when it came to its postseason résumé.
"My team has improved from the beginning of the year," said Gottfried, who does not mind campaigning for his players. "We're getting better. I think we're still improving. We played a great schedule, but we just sometimes weren't good enough."
They were good enough on Friday, even if their athletic director didn't see it.