ATLANTA — After a rugged, foul-plagued game in which each team lost its top scorer, the officials put their whistles away in the closing seconds.
It worked out just fine for North Carolina.
It sent North Carolina State into a tizzy.
Kendall Marshall banked in a shot with 10.2 seconds remaining and the fourth-ranked Tar Heels came up with a pair of defensive stops to edge their state rival, escaping a wild finish with a 69-67 victory over N.C. State in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Saturday.
A tournament that had been short on drama finally got some. N.C. State's Richard Howell thought he was fouled on the final play and started going after an official, only to be pulled away by a couple of teammates.
North Carolina (29-4) breathed a big sigh of relief, advancing to face No. 17 Florida State in Sunday's championship game and looking to lock up a top seed in the NCAA tournament if it hasn't already. The Seminoles knocked off sixth-ranked Duke 62-59.
"Right now, we feel very fortunate to say the least," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "If you want to put lucky in there, you can say that as well."
C.J. Leslie, who led the Wolfpack with 22 points, fouled out with 8:03 remaining in the game. North Carolina lost its top scorer when Tyler Zeller picked up his fifth foul with 1:08 to play after scoring 23 points.
But it was a couple of non-calls that left N.C. State furious.
Alex Johnson went flying on Marshall's drive, but there was no whistle from the officials. The Wolfpack (22-12) got one more crack with 1.2 seconds left, and Howell thought he was fouled trying to put up a shot after getting his hand on a long pass. Coach Mark Gottfried slapped his hands and argued vehemently for a foul.
"We're disappointed. Tremendously," Gottfried said. "This is just a tough one to take. A tough one."
Gottfried will surely face questions about leaving Leslie in the game after he picked up his fourth foul. The first-year coach conceded that he lost track of the situation, and less than a minute later his leading scorer was whistled for his fifth.
"Miscommunication by our staff. That's our responsibility," Gottfried said. "The two fouls happened so fast. Boom, boom."
N.C. State came to Atlanta figuring two wins would be enough to claim its first NCAA bid since 2006. The Wolfpack accomplished that goal, but it still figures to be a nerve-racking Sunday as they await announcement of the 68-team field.
"We had to overcome a lot of foul trouble, we had to fight through a lot of different things in the game, but our kids never quit," Gottfried said. "I just think of how proud I am of our guys. We've come a long way and we have gotten a lot better."
The Tar Heels played without ACC defensive player of the year John Henson, who sprained his left wrist early on in a quarterfinal victory over Maryland. He didn't even bother dressing for the semifinals, watching the game from the bench wearing a suit and a brace on his ailing wrist. It's not known if he'll be back for the title game, either.
Lorenzo Brown scored 16 points and nearly bailed out the shorthanded Wolfpack. He split the defense for a rim-hanging dunk, then flew back toward the top of the lane, bounced off Harrison Barnes to draw the foul, rolled in a fallaway shot and sank the free throw to complete a three-point play that tied it at 66 with 1:31 to go.
DeShawn Painter and Barnes traded free throws to set up the wild finish.
Marshall, who had 12 points and 10 assists, dribbled near midcourt to let the shot clock wind down, then took off down the left side of the lane with Johnson trying to stay with him. The N.C. State guard planted his feet and thought he drew the charge, going down extra hard for effect. The officials didn't buy it, and Marshall pulled up for the easy shot with no one in his face.
"In that situation," he said, "they're not going to call a ticky-tacky 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."
The Wolfpack took off the other way, and Scott Wood tried to zip a quick pass underneath the basket to Painter. But Justin Watts stepped in to pick off the ball and flung it high toward the other end of the court, hoping N.C. State wouldn't catch up with it until the clock ran out. But Johnson got to it and wisely called time with 1.2 seconds left.
Still, Williams called Watts' defensive effort the biggest play of the game.
"We had new assignments at the timeout as to who was guarding who and had a mix-up," the coach said. "Painter was underneath the basket wide open and I'm screaming 'Go get him!' to one of our guys. J-Watts, who was not his man, heard or saw me ... and sprinted down there and saved us, because they were throwing it to Painter for a layup."
N.C. State had another chance at a tying shot, flinging a long pass toward Howell with Barnes and Reggie Bullock in his face. Howell got a hand on it and turned to shoot, but the ball was flicked away and the horn sounded.
The Wolfpack went basket-for-basket with the regular-season champs in the first half. The lead changed hands 10 times, there were five ties and the margin was never more than five points either way. Williams wasn't happy with his team, breaking his clipboard during a first-half timeout.
With just under 5 minutes remaining in the half, Marshall picked up his second foul trying to cut off an N.C. State fastbreak. The Tar Heels' most valuable player went to the bench for the rest of the period, but managed to avoid another call.
That wasn't the case for nearly everyone else as a total of 42 fouls were called in the game.
Leslie picked up his fourth on a disputed play at the offensive end, but Gottfried wasn't aware of it. Leslie must not have known either, because he came over the back of Barnes to pick up his fifth a short time later.
That left Brown to carry the load.
He almost pulled it out.
"We knew," Brown said, "that we had to step it up the best way we could."