NC State tops No. 1 Duke, then celebrates with thousands
North Carolina State fans started maneuvering their way down the stairs and as close to the baselines as they could possibly get with a little less than a minute left on the clock in NC State's win over Duke on Saturday.
|North Carolina State's C.J. Leslie celebrates with the fans after the Wolfpack's 84-76 win. (AP)|
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The North Carolina State fans started maneuvering their way down the stairs and as close to the baselines as they could possibly get with a little less than a minute left on the clock. It was 1:56 p.m. local time -- or about 12 hours after students first lined up outside PNC Arena in hopes of getting the very best seats they could in anticipation of what projected as a memorable Saturday for their school.
The top-ranked and undefeated Duke Blue Devils were down.
All signs suggested they'd stay there.
So thousands of able-bodied students -- and one fearless dude in a wheelchair -- got as ready as you can get for an obviously planned but still unorganized court-storming that was certain to take out a couple of tables, and then they just ... waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. There were still four fouls to be committed and eight free throws to be made because Duke had no interest in conceding its perfect record without a fight. Consequently, it actually took more than five minutes to play the final minute of what became an 84-76 victory for the Wolfpack, and it was in those five minutes that it became crystal clear just how much this day meant to these fans.
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I closed my computer and looked around a lot.
I saw old men chanting and young women crying, and if you think that's silly given that this was just a regular-season game against a team missing a key player then you don't understand this program and its fans or the dynamics of The Triangle. It had been nearly nine years since NC State last topped a rival ranked No. 1 in this building -- that rival was also Duke. The date was Feb. 15, 2004. Julius Hodge scored 18 points in a 78-74 victory, then announced to the world he wanted his teammates to stay hungry because, as Hodge colorfully put it, "when we hungry, we eat."
Folks here still talk about that moment.
Man, what a great moment.
But since that moment things have mostly been bad.
The Wolfpack have finished no better than fourth in the ACC in eight straight seasons that've featured three different coaches. Meanwhile, The Triangle's other two prominent programs -- Duke and North Carolina -- have combined for eight ACC titles and three national titles over that same span, making it reasonable to wonder during the down times whether this program that's hung multiple national championship banners would ever be anything other than third in this area until Mike Krzyzewski and/or Roy Williams retires.
Which brings me back to Saturday.
"Our guys knew this was a big deal," said NC State coach Mark Gottfried, and it really was. The Wolfpack entered with 13 wins, two losses and a No. 20 beside their name. That's fine. But, as usual, one of their rivals was having an even better season -- more specifically a perfect season that had Duke sitting atop the polls and still listed as a favorite over NC State despite the fact Ryan Kelly was sidelined with a foot injury. And it was hard to argue with the oddsmakers when Mason Plumlee dunked to give Duke a 27-19 lead because it looked like the Blue Devils were on their way to remaining perfect.
But then Richard Howell started rebounding everything.
"He was just a beast," Krzyzewski said in the simplest and most complimentary way after watching Howell grab 14 second-half rebounds en route to a 16-point, 18-rebound game. That effort combined with C.J. Leslie's 25 points and six rebounds, Lorenzo Brown's 12 points and 13 assists, and Scott Wood's three made 3-pointers was enough to give the Wolfpack a comfortable lead that led to fans at both ends waiting for an obviously planned but still unorganized court-storming that was certain to take out a couple of tables.
And then those fans just ... waited.
Truth be told, the whole thing felt kind of weird -- a bunch of people waiting a good five minutes for the final minute to tick off the clock so that they could run (or roll) on to the court and celebrate. But as the fans waited and I watched and some inconsequential free throws were made, I realized this wasn't a five-minute wait as much as it was a wait that had lasted nearly a decade, and what's an extra five minutes in the grand scheme of things when you've been waiting that long to enjoy a moment like this?
"I saw the whole court and then I couldn't see a bit of court," Leslie said, a big smile on his face. "It was just people everywhere."
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