In condemning Clemson, N.C. State lives another day on March Madness bubble
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Life on the bubble is hell.
A perpetual feeling of anxiety surrounding an uncertain future is never more tangible than mid-March. One minute, there’s joy and elation. The next: despair and defeat. Much like the Wile E. Coyote, bubble teams are never truly out from under the looming anvil, a single loss the difference between crushed dreams and March Madness bids.
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While it’s generally hyperbole to say an entire season boils down to one game — completely disregarding the 31 games prior — that may have been the case in N.C. State’s 59-58 comeback victory over Clemson in the second round of the ACC Tournament: a de facto NCAA Tournament play-in game.
“It was about how much heart and desire and effort you put into it,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “These guys were special.”
The game itself was a microcosm of “bubble-dom.” A pair of Markell Johnson free throws with 2.6 seconds remaining sealed an 18-point Wolfpack comeback, the second-largest in ACC Tournament history. A mere 20 minutes before Johnson’s free throws, N.C. State (22-10) walked, heads down, to a halftime locker room of an awaiting and disappointed Keatts.
When the final horn sounded, the shoe was on the other foot. Wolfpack players skipped to the locker room, where everyone chomped at the bit to answer the hoard of media members. Conversely, only one Clemson player — graduate player Marquise Reed — took questions from reporters. The rest sat with heads down, earbuds in, wondering what could have been.
“The game’s over with now, and we’ve just got to wait and see what happens Sunday,” Reed said. “For sure (it’s frustrating), but waiting is all we can do at this point.”
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The Tigers jumped out to their 18-point lead by starting the game 7 of 8 on 3-point attempts. The Wolfpack struggled from deep, making just a lone attempt of their first 10 from range. It was almost as though N.C. State was unaware of the stakes of the game, encapsulated by Derek Funderburk running to midcourt to check into the game, only to realize he didn’t have a jersey on under his warmups.
But a new half brought a whole new ballgame. Johnson scored 13 second-half points to finish with a game-high 23, and Clemson (19-13) scored just five points in the final 10:48 on 6-of-3 to extend the Wolfpack’s season and perhaps but the final pop in the Clemson bubble.
“We never turned on each other,” N.C. State’s Wyatt Walker said. “We believed. … (Markelle) is like a magician. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s hard sometimes not to just sit back in awe.”
Neither Clemson nor N.C. State’s postseason plans are set in stone. While the Tigers wait an excruciating four days for Selection Sunday, the Wolfpack must handle No. 2 Virginia on Thursday, a team the they managed to take to overtime in late January.
Prior to Wednesday, Sporting News projected the Wolfpack as a 9-seed, and the Tigers at 12. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi included the pair in his “Last four in” category, but only time will tell. Tuffy the Wolf may have eluded the awaiting anvil, but things could change with one bad loss.
“Our whole mindset is just to survive and advance,” Walker said.
That’s life on the bubble. Life on the bubble is hell.
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