Whether it was hedging on a top-of-the-key ball screen to keep Shane Larkin from driving to the rim or sending two defenders at him to contest his shot after he reversed course, NC State did everything possible to keep the Miami point guard from beating them.
The only thing the Wolfpack didn't do right on the Hurricanes' final possession was secure the rebound of Larkin's miss.
When Larkin's off-balance 12-footer caromed off the glass and the rim, mammoth center Reggie Johnson was in the best position in the paint to collect the rebound. Johnson's deft left-handed tip-in with less than a second remaining in the game gave 14th-ranked Miami a 79-78 victory, enabling the Hurricanes to tighten their grip further on first place in the ACC.
At 17-3 overall and 8-0 in league play, Miami has at least a two-game lead on everyone else in the ACC. NC State, the preseason favorite to win the ACC, is now only 5-4 in league play after losses to Wake Forest, Maryland, Virginia and now the Hurricanes, likely leaving the Wolfpack too far back to be considered a realistic contender.
NC State can't be faulted for its effort against the Hurricanes. Even with standout point guard Lorenzo Brown sidelined with an ankle injury, the Wolfpack got enough production from other sources to match Miami shot-for-shot much of the game.
Forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell combined for 33 points and 20 rebounds. Freshman Rodney Purvis chipped in 13 points, two on an extraordinary tip dunk late in the first half. And freshman point guard Tyler Lewis who hadn't scored more than six in a game all season, finished with 16 points and five assists in 36 minutes.
Lewis had a chance to all but finish off the Hurricanes, but he missed a contested jumper with about 15 seconds left. And when Miami grabbed the rebound and called timeout, it meant that an NC State team that has been suspect defensively much of the season was going to have to come up with a defensive stop to remain undefeated at home.
Credit Johnson for putting an end to that streak.
The 6-foot-10 senior, who had struggled since returning from a thumb injury against Duke on Jan. 23, showed signs of shaking off the rust and regaining his all-conference form. He scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds against NC State after scoring 11 points on 2 of 14 shooting the previous three games.
If Johnson is going to return to top form, that's scary news for the rest of the ACC. A Miami team that already features a strong guard tandem in Larkin and Durand Scott and several versatile big men would only get better.
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