GREENSBORO – Not too many people believed this could happen.
Why would they?
The N.C. State women’s basketball team entered the ACC tournament as a ninth seed. The Wolfpack had loss six of its last seven regular season conference games until it knocked off eighth-seeded Florida State in the first round to set up a match-up against top-seeded Duke on Friday.
More importantly, no No. 1 seed had failed to reach the semifinals in the history of the tournament. The top seed was 32-0 – 18-0 against eighth seeds and 14-0 against ninth seeds.
By that logic, few believed the Pack had a chance to top fifth-ranked Duke (24-5, 15-1 ACC) – a team it lost to by 24 points on Jan. 8 – yet N.C. State once again defied the odds and claimed an improbable 75-73 victory before a stunned crowd at Greensboro Coliseum.
“They believe,” said N.C. State coach Kellie Harper, whose team overcame a stiff challenge from the ACC regular season champions and collected the program’s first tournament win over Duke since a 70-65 victory on March 3, 2007 in the semifinals.
The Pack (18-14, 5-11) carries its new found confidence into today’s semifinals against No. 4 seed Georgia Tech – a 54-53 winner over fifth-seeded North Carolina on Friday.
The Blue Devils, looking for their third tournament title in row, had their hands full with a pesky Wolfpack team that forced 22 turnovers and turned them into 26 points. The teams finished even with 40 rebounds.
“They’re so good and so physical,” N.C. State senior Emili Tasler said. “We knew if we weren’t physical with them, we’d have no chance. ... We’ve been in the weight room a lot lately, so you got to use it.”
N.C. State’s Marissa Kastanek and Bonae Holston each scored 16 points, raising their level to help the Pack match Duke’s physical prowess.
Wolfpack sophomore point guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman scored 12 points, including a 3-pointer with six minutes, six seconds left that handed her team a 64-62 lead. That shot from near of the top of the arc put N.C. State on top for good.
From there on, the Pack kept pouring on the pressure, drawing fouls and going into the double-bonus when Duke freshman center Elizabeth Williams – the ACC rookie and defensive player of the year – fouled out with 2:54 left.
Duke sophomore Tricia Liston hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut State’s lead to 75-73 with 1:18 remaining.
With 12.8 seconds left, N.C State senior Emili Tasler missed two free throws that could have put the game away.
Given a chance, the Blue Devils attacked the rim, sophomore point guard Chelsea Gray creating in the lane as she had done all game. She was fouled.
But Gray – who scored a game-high 25 points, dished two assists and had eight turnovers – stepped to the line and missed the first of a one-and-one off the front the rim.
“The team was there,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We were alive. I kept wondering where were we the other 30 minutes of the game.”
Duke finished 9-for-19 from the free throw line.
Added Gray, who spoke afterward of practicing free throws: “This one is tough. This is the toughest one yet. We didn’t play as we’re capable of playing. We didn’t reach our full potential in this game. You can’t take anyone for granted.”
Goodwin-Coleman, who played under control with four assists and two turnovers, made the difference for the Pack.
“We’ve always believed, but we’re just clicking now,” she said. “Our focus is crazy.”
Harper, who is 6-2 in ACC tournament games and 17-5 overall in career conference games, said her teams build mental toughest throughout the season and peak during the post-season.
It was a satisfying victory for a coach who ended her playing career at Tennessee in a NCAA tournament loss to Duke at Greensboro Coliseum. She understood what it would take.
“They don’t just give you a win, you have to go out and get it,” Harper said. “Our kids are as tough as anybody right now.”
N.C. State players seemed quite comfortable with the pace of the game. On Thursday, former Pack standout, Rhonda Mapp, visited the team and spoke about carrying energy onto the court. “Let the fans feel it,” Goodwin-Coleman recalled from the conversation.
Observers were certainly captivated as they watched the lead change 10 times. They may not have seen N.C. State’s upset over Florida State on Thursday, where they rallied in the second half to eke out victory, but were soon aware of the possibility against Duke.
Still, the Pack entered the tournament 0-11 this season after trailing at halftime. Duke led 37-36 at the break.