ATLANTA--- In the poker game that is the annual Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball Tournament, North Carolina had the deck stacked against it Saturday afternoon in its semifinal clash with archrival N.C. State in Philips Arena.
The Tar Heels were without ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-league performer John Henson as he nurses an injured wrist, and Carolina had several players, including Tyler Zeller, James Michael McAdoo, and Kendall Marshall, get into foul trouble. Zeller wound up fouling out.
And then there was Harrison Barnes having arguably the worst first half of his career at Carolina, scoring just three points and failing to make a single field goal.
Taking all that into consideration it wouldn't have been a huge shock had Carolina slipped up and lost to the fired-up Wolfpack, who essentially have played their way into the NCAA Tournament with its victories Thursday and Friday over Boston College and Virginia.
NCSU was playing healthy and playing confident, and they gave the short-handed Tar Heels all they wanted but in the end it wasn't enough, as UNC made just enough plays to secure a 69-67 triumph and a berth in Sunday's ACC championship game against Florida State.
"Right now we feel very fortunate to say the least," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately after the game. "If you want to put lucky in there, you can say that as well. We didn't play nearly as well as we wanted to play, and give North Carolina State credit for that. We feel very fortunate like I said, but we also feel very happy."
The Tar Heels and Wolfpack played mostly even through an energetic first half, with neither team building a lead of more than five points.
The Wolfpack took a 34-31 lead at halftime, and then NCSU drew McAdoo's fourth foul at the 17:40 mark of the second half.
With State climbing into its biggest lead of the game at 43-36, things looked bleak for Carolina at that point.
But then Carolina went on an 11-0 run, as Barnes finally started hitting the mark and made his first two field goals of the game, a pair of three-pointers. Barnes' second three-ball gave Carolina a 48-46 lead, and then another basket for UNC gave the Heels a four-point advantage.
"You could just tell shots were going to fall," Barnes said. "You just have to be tough and just fight through it. I knew eventually they'd fall at some point, so you just continue to shoot and continue to be aggressive."
Alex Johnson hit a three-pointer to pull NCSU within a point, but then came one of the most controversial and dramatic moments of the game, when Wolfpack star C.J. Leslie, who had 22 points up to that moment, fouled out with 8:03 to play.
UNC held a 66-61 lead with under four minutes remaining before NCSU put together another rally, as Lorenzo Brown got a dunk and then a three-point play to tie the game.
Zeller fouled out for UNC with just 1:08 on the clock, and a Deshawn Painter free throw gave State a one-point lead (67-66) heading into the final minute.
After Barnes was fouled and made one free throw to once again tie the game, the Wolfpack committed a turnover at the worst possible time, as Johnson inexplicably made a lazy pass not far from the timeline that dropped out of bounds.
UNC took the ball to set up a game-winning shot and Marshall got to play the part of hero, driving and banking a shot home from the left side with 10.2 seconds left on the clock.
NCSU head coach Mark Gottfried wanted a charge called on Kendall's final basket---just one of many calls over the course of the game to draw criticism from the coaches---but the officials didn't oblige.
"I feel like in basketball in that situation, they (the refs) are not going to call a ticky-tack foul. We just wanted to get something going toward the rim. And thankfully enough, I was able to get it up on the backboard and it went in," said Marshall.
"In that situation---'Z' has fouled out, John is on the bench, and I pass up on a shot---in that case he (Marshall) was the second option," added Barnes. "That play was intended for him to drive, and if he had the opportunity to score, score, and if not, make a play. I thought his shot was great."
But the game wasn't over, as State came down and had one last chance to tie or win.
The Wolfpack brought the ball down as the last seconds ticked off, at which time UNC senior Justin Watts made perhaps the most important individual play of his career at Carolina, stepping in front of a Scott Wood pass directly under the basket and then heaving it to the other end of the court before falling out of bounds, leaving the Wolfpack less than two seconds to score.
"Painter was under the basket wide open and I'm screaming 'Go Get Him!' to one of our guys," said Coach Williams. "J Watts, who was not his (Painter's) man, heard or saw me---I couldn't tell you which one---and sprinted down there and saved us because they were throwing it to Painter for a layup. Big play by him. Today J Watts made a big one for us."
"He (Watts) did a fantastic job, especially in the last few seconds," added Zeller.
On the ensuing NCSU inbounds the Tar Heel players deflected the ball away, and Carolina had punched its ticket to a return date with the Seminoles Sunday afternoon.
"It's a great feeling anytime you're going for a championship," said Zeller, who led all scorers with 23 points.
Zeller admitted that there's a sense of unfinished business on a couple of fronts heading into tomorrow's clash with the Seminoles.
There's the redemption factor, as the Tar Heels are looking to avenge the 33-point loss in January down in Tallahassee, but there's also the fact that Zeller and Watts have not won an ACC Tournament before, and Sunday provides their final opportunity.
"Yeah, there's a little bit (of a sense of unfinished business), especially last year where we lost by 18 or something like that (to Duke), so that was disappointing, but hopefully we can have a better showing tomorrow."