RALEIGH – Up five, in possession of the ball and 1:47 showing on the second half clock, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried called timeout to draw up a play that potentially could have put away the game.
Instead, the No. 19 Wolfpack turned over the ball two straight times, which led to four Miami points.
Up two with 53 seconds to play, C.J. Leslie stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to take a two-possession lead.
He missed the front end of a one-and-one, then committed a foul 70 feet from the Wolfpack’s basket.
On a Groundhog Day game, ironically, the Wolfpack lost a conference game the same way it has all season: Failing to bury a team and paying the price.
Miami’s Reggie Johnson hit a tip-in with eight-tenths of a second in regulation to propel the No. 14 Hurricanes past the Wolfpack, 79-78, Saturday at PNC Arena.
“It’s amazing. Sometimes in sports you have years where all those plays go in your favor,” Gottfried said, shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t.”
Rodney Purvis’ buzzer-beating 3-point shot from three-quarters court rattled in and out, giving N.C. State (16-6, 5-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) its first ever home loss to Miami.
The Wolfpack now has lost three of four. Its four ACC losses have come by margins of one, one, two and three points, and a pair of those saw the lead change hands in the final second.
“I think we’re getting better all the time,” Gottfried said. “The frustrating thing is you got four league losses to show for it.”
On the final possession, the first-place Hurricanes (17-3, 8-0) were forced into a tough running shot in the lane by guard Shane Larkin, but the miss came directly at the 292-pound Johnson, who was able to reach out his hand and direct the ball on target.
In the matter of half-a-second, the Wolfpack went from thinking it had earned a stop and a win into being forced to scramble for one last desperate shot attempt.
“It happened so fast,” Leslie said. “The guard got into the paint and got pretty close, and shot off a shot. Reggie, with the wide body he has got, he was able to get a touch on the ball and knock it in for them.”
The few gaffes in the final two minutes overshadowed a mostly positive afternoon for the Wolfpack.
Leslie earned a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and Richard Howell scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
The biggest bright spot for N.C. State was point guard Tyler Lewis – who played 36 minutes in place of injured starter Lorenzo Brown – scored 16 points, notched five assists and turned over the ball only once.
N.C. State subbed in Lewis at 15:48 of the first half and never replaced him.
The offense awoke with him, turning a three-point deficit into a six-point lead by halftime.
The Wolfpack led by eight midway through the second half when Miami went on a 16-2 run to take the lead. N.C. State fought back, going on a 14-3 run of its own when Gottfried took a timeout with a five-point edge.
“We wanted to get the ball back inside to C.J. because he was going – either C.J. or Rich,” Purvis said. “Both of those guys, you know, they’re very good on the block and working in the paint, so that’s what we were going to.”
Instead, Durand Scott stole the ball from Purvis before he could make an entry pass, causing Purvis to foul Scott on the ensuing fast break.
Scott sank both free throws, then T.J. Warren threw away the inbound pass, leading to a Miami lay-up.
Lewis hit two free throws to give N.C. State a three-point lead, then Scott hit two of his four attempts from the free-throw line on the next two Miami possessions, keeping the lead at one.
Gottfried drew up a play for Lewis, but his pull-up jumper with 16 seconds left missed.
“Coach just told me to come off the ball screen on the side and make a play happen,” Lewis said. “I didn’t make the shot. … If I would have made the shot, we probably would have won the game.”
That’s when the veteran Hurricanes, with three seniors, a junior and a sophomore on the court for their final possession, changed their coach’s original play when they saw the Wolfpack’s defense. Johnson – the center, of all people – called a set named “horns,” which led to him being the right position for the tip-in.
“Our guys make a lot of decisions on their own,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “We went to horns – I didn’t call that. I told you, I couldn’t even communicate with the guys. They changed that on their own. … Those are decisions when you hope your players know what they’re doing, and I have great confidence in them.”
Five Miami players scored in double figures, led by Scott with 18 points.
The Wolfpack’s next action comes Saturday, when it will travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play No. 5 Duke, which it beat, 84-76, on Jan. 12.
“I feel bad for our players right now because I feel like they competed really hard,” Gottfried said. “Different guys had to step up at different times and they did. I thought our effort was phenomenal, and sometimes it just comes down to the bounce of a ball.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com