updated 9:18 p.m.
GREENSBORO -- N.C. State’s women’s basketball team knows how to fight back.
Trailing No. 7 seed Boston College in the first half by as many as 15 points, down by as many as 14 points in the second half, the No. 10 Wolfpack rallied for an unlikely 71-70 victory over the Eagles on Thursday in the first round of the ACC women’s basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
This time, after coming up short throughout the regular season, the Pack learned how to finish a close game.
“It’s got to go our way this time,” State coach Kellie Harper said she thought as the clock wound down. “Surely this team deserves a break.”
State got one.
Her team down by a point, State senior Brittany Strachan snagged a rebound off a missed shot by junior Bonae Holston and was fouled in the lane. She stepped to the free throw line and nailed two free throws with 14.9 second left.
Boston College called a timeout with nine seconds on the clock. The Eagles ran a pick-and-roll with guard Jaclyn Thomas and senior center Carolyn Swords, but were rebuffed in the final seconds by a defensive stance that sent the Pack into the second day of the tournament where it will face No. 2 Miami on Friday at 6 p.m.
“I thought to myself, ‘All we need is one stop,’” said junior Bonae Holston, who scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
This was the sixth meeting between these two teams over the past two seasons. State defeated the Eagles 80-69 on Feb. 24, but dropped a game to them 77-67 on Jan. 20.
“My heart is aching for these players,” Boston College coach Sylvia Crawley said. “It really hurts to lose by a point.”
The Pack made a spectacular ACC tournament run last season before falling to Duke 70-60 in the championship game. A late-season turnaround cleared the path for an NCAA tournament berth.
Entering her second season, Harper expected a rough road, considering the loss of three seniors who played key roles. Marked by youth and inexperience, the Pack has also dealt with injuries to experienced returning players Tia Bell and Emili Tasler.
Led by Holston and sophomore Marissa Kastanek, this youthful Pack team has again come alive at the end of a season, securing victories in four of its past five games.
Despite losing several close games, including a four-overtime loss to Virginia on Feb. 10, the Pack continues to rebound, a strength of the team that has anchored its play recently. State, with only two players taller than 6-feet, is averaging 44.2 rebounds per game, its highest total since the 1978-79 season.
Still, Boston College senior Carolyn Swords owned the paint, scoring 27 points and clearing 12 boards, helping the Eagles to a 39-35 rebound advantage.
Swords is the first player in school history to earn back-to-back All-ACC first-team honors and is a player of the year candidate, having led the nation in field goal percentage (72.0) all season.
The Pack, showing the grit that defined it during last season’s tournament, rallied late in the first half, cutting the Eagles‘ lead on back-to-back three-point plays by senior Amber White.
With 45 seconds remaining in the first half, White plucked the ball from Thomas and drove the lane for a layup and was fouled. She made the free throw and that sent the Pack into halftime trailing 32-27.
White’s free throw was almost as thrilling as Strachan’s theatrics. “Brittany does come up with hustle plays all the time. There was none bigger than at that time,” Harper said.
Harper implored players to have fun before the game. They followed instructions and, despite previous setbacks in close games, executed at the end. That was the difference.
“We love tournament time,” Harper said.
Photo: N.C. State's Marissa Kastanek (23) and teammate Brittany Strachan (21) react as a shot by Boston College falls short and the Wolfpack wins 71-70. CHUCK LIDDY - email@example.com