NEW YORK — After a cakewalk swung wildly into a slugfest, in which Boston College and North Carolina State traded big shots like body blows down the stretch, their dogfight Wednesday afternoon at the Barclays Center in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament ultimately came down to a mental mistake.
The result was a 91-87 upset by the late-charging Eagles, who gained a berth in the ACC quarterfinals for the first time since 2011.
BC (19-14) was clinging to an 87-85 lead with 13 seconds left.
N.C. State’s Allerik Freeman was trying to inbound the ball at half court, under duress from Eagles all-ACC guard Jerome Robinson. With Robinson doing jumping jacks in front of him, Freeman tried to force a pass to point guard Markell Johnson, which is exactly what Robinson figured he would try to do.
“I knew they were going to try to get it to [Johnson], and I tried to take it away,” Robinson said. “Then at the last second I jumped, I knew he only had a second or two left.”
Robinson got his fingertips on the pass and tipped it to teammate Ky Bowman. The Wolfpack had no choice but to foul, putting Bowman on the line for a pair for free throws that pushed the lead to 89-85.
With their options running low, Johnson kept the Wolfpack alive with a quick layup that cut the deficit to 89-87 with 7 seconds left.
But as soon as the ball went through the net, Johnson’s instincts abandoned him.
He turned to an official and asked for a timeout. The problem: N.C. State didn’t have any.
“I didn’t know,” Robinson said. “Ky was yelling, ‘That’s a tech! That’s a tech!’ ”
Bowman was on top of it because he got a heads-up from Eagles video production assistant Chip Cunningham.
“At that time, situations like that, you don’t really understand what’s going on,” Bowman said. “The game’s going so fast, you just happen to call one.”
Johnson’s lapse all but doomed the Wolfpack. The only thing left to decide was who would do the honors at the free throw line.
Bowman, Robinson, and Jordan Chatman all stepped up.
“Rome [Jerome Robinson] just said, ‘I got it,’ ” Bowman said. “He was hot at that point. Go ahead and knock it in.”
As much as the victory was a leap for a program that hadn’t won two games in the postseason since 2006, the most subtle but significant sign of growth that coach Jim Christian saw in his team was in that moment.
“The hugest step forward for me, when we had the technical foul at the end of the game, we had three guys that wanted to shoot the ball,” Christian said. “Last year we would have had five guys running the other way. And that’s what it’s all about for me, just confident basketball players, playing on a big stage or wanting to make plays. That’s beautiful.”
The Eagles are in a position few predicted at the start of the week at the Barclays. They’ve set themselves up to face No. 25 Clemson on Thursday (2:30 p.m., ESPN), proving themselves as more than just a surprise team but a serious threat.
“It’s maybe us believing in ourselves,” Christian said. “It’s maybe us taking that next step. This isn’t new to us. We were good all year long. We beat some really good teams and had some opportunities to beat some others.”
The Eagles led by as many as 17 points early in the second half, but Christian wasn’t overconfident.
“I knew they would come back,” he said. “They’re a good basketball team. You talk about one of the top teams in the country, a team that’s going to go to the NCAA Tournament and win games. We’ve been in that situation now the last couple weeks, and this is growth.”
Robinson played the entire game and scored a team-high 26 points — despite going just 1 of 7 from behind the 3-point arc — with five assists. Bowman added 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 37 minutes. BC also got strong inside games from Nik Popovic (15 points, 7 rebounds) and Steffon Mitchell (a career-high 15 rebounds).
Robinson’s biggest moment came with 17 seconds left and the score tied at 85. He took a pass at half court, was swarmed as soon as he put the ball on the floor, but found just enough space to hit a mid-range jumper that gave BC the lead for good.
“I can shoot the mid-range, so I was just getting to my comfort spot that I knew I could make,” Robinson said.
Christian understood the significance of the victory.
“I’ll let you know when it’s done,” he said. “But again, I’m proud of these guys. It’s just confidence. We established who we are and what we’re trying to do.
“I’m more happy for them than anything else in the world. They deserve every single thing that they’re getting right now.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.