ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
GREENSBORO — Three minutes separated N.C. State from the ACC tournament championship game.
Up a point with 3 minutes left, after having erased a 10-point halftime deficit, the Wolfpack was so close to a third straight upset and a date with Duke for its first ACC title in 23 years.
Then Derrick Favors ruined the red-and-white ending. The Georgia Tech freshman scored five of his 17 points in the final 3 minutes to push the Yellow Jackets past a resolute 11th-seeded N.C. State team for a 57-54 win.
"Everyone was thinking we were going to close it out," Wolfpack freshman Scott Wood said.
N.C. State outlasted Clemson and Florida State in Greensboro, both bigger and stronger teams, but couldn't climb over the Jackets into the final.
Favors, the ACC's rookie of the year and perhaps the most talented player in the league, withstood a one-on-one duel with Wolfpack big man Tracy Smith, and a wild, contentious sequence with State guard Javier Gonzalez to give the seventh-seeded Jackets their third win in as many days.
Favors' biggest shot came with 2:50 left when he stepped off the block and drained a 10-foot jumper to give the Jackets a lead (47-46) they wouldn't give up.
GT opened the door with missed free throws in the final minute, but State's last chance — a Gonzalez 3-pointer with 2 seconds left — bounced off the rim.
"We had the crowd with us but we made some dumb plays at the end," senior forward Dennis Horner said. "Georgia Tech made that final run in the last 3 minutes and got the game."
The Wolfpack finished with only six turnovers but the one by Gonzalez near midcourt with 1:29 left was the biggest. Iman Shumpert stripped Gonzalez of the ball and fed it ahead to Favors. Gonzalez grabbed Favors' jersey, for an intentional foul, then swung him around by it.
After the tempers cooled, Favors hit one of his two free throws and scored a field goal on the same possession to push GT's lead to 52-46.
"I think [Gonzalez] was more frustrated with himself for making the turnover," Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said. "He wasn't trying to hurt him."
Favors hurt the Wolfpack enough on the stat sheet with 17 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He also defended Smith on a crucial drive to the basket with 2:13 left, that thwarted State's best chance of re-taking the lead in the waning moments.
"He's big and he's athletic," Smith said of Favors. "It's hard to do something with him when you have skills like that."
It was when the Jackets ignored Favors, who had only two shots in the first 6 minutes of the second half, that N.C. State went from down 29-19 at the half to up 36-33 at 14:18 in the second half.
Gonzalez hit back-to-back 3s and the pro-N.C. State crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum got behind a weary undersized team playing for the third time in three days.
Emotion and desire couldn't help State's shooting problems. The Pack went 6-of-26 from 3-point range and shot just 30.6 percent (19-62) for the game.
Smith went 6-of-13 in scoring his team-best 15 points but Horner (2-12) and Gonzalez (3-14) couldn't find the touch they had in beating Clemson and FSU.
"We just didn't shoot the ball well," Lowe said. "We certainly had the opportunity but we just couldn't finish it off."
This was only the second loss in seven games after State started 2-10 in the ACC. Getting this far, and this close, Smith said, was an accomplishment for a team that began the season pegged for last place.
"Most people thought we were going to lose in the first round but we proved them wrong and kept fighting," Smith said.
At 19-15, Smith hopes State's season is not over. The NIT would be a nice consolation for a strong finish. Smith lingered on the court after the teams exchanged handshakes, not wanting the tournament to end.
"We can't hang our heads," Smith said. "We have to put this behind us and go to the NIT and try to win that."