- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Now we know why North Carolina State goes by Wolfpack instead of Wolves. It turns out nobody knows more about sticking together.
Playing less as a collection of individuals than a singular collective, No. 25 NC State stunned top-ranked Duke 70-65 in the semifinals of the ACC women's basketball tournament Saturday. In a basketball sense, the game was monumental. Any hopes of an undefeated season vanished for the Blue Devils (30-1), as did an air of invincibility that had grown to surround the team after two wins against North Carolina, two wins against Maryland and a road win at Tennessee, not to mention the first undefeated regular season in ACC women's history.
But if the sight of the Blue Devils standing together on the court after the loss and applauding as Kay Yow was honored in a previously planned award ceremony wasn't enough to demonstrate that Duke's loss matters far less in the grand scheme than NC State's win, then one sentence in the postgame news conference ought to confirm it.
"My voice, the problem was sometimes the chemo does that to my voice, which I just had on Wednesday," Yow said in a voice that was equal parts raspy and proud.
If you want to talk about adversity with the Wolfpack, you had better dig deeper than a double-digit first-half deficit or an eight-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play against the No. 1 team in the country. When you have a coach who is battling breast cancer for the third time in 20 years and has to stay in her hotel room to conserve energy when the team goes out to eat, the clock ticking above the court doesn't scare anyone.
The Wolfpack don't play against an opponent as much as they play for Yow.
"It means a lot," sophomore Shayla Fields said. "I think we've been playing great since Coach Yow has been back. And I think it means so much to her that we were able to come out and beat the No. 1 team in the country and give them their first loss."
Yow, of course, returned to the bench against Virginia on Jan. 23 after a two-month absence during which she received chemotherapy. She remains on a four-week cycle of treatment, the latest of which was earlier this week. In supporting their coach and supporting each other, Yow's players have formed an unmistakable bond.
"We're very much like family," Fields said. "We're very close together. We do a lot of stuff together, and I think that helps us on the court."
To say basketball doesn't matter in the big picture would be to throw away what Yow has spent a career doing better than almost any other coach in women's basketball. Basketball does matter as a reflection of the skills cultivated, the bonds formed and the effort put forth by everyone involved. And in that sense, awards and honorifics aside, there is no better way to celebrate Yow than to consider how her team came together to beat Duke.
After watching the Blue Devils run over her team in Friday's quarterfinal, Virginia coach Debbie Ryan offered a prophetic take on what it would take to beat the nation's top team.
"Well, they are going to have to have a bad day and somebody is going to have to have a really good day," Ryan said. "I still think that teams that get good shots against them, and can be very physical with them and finish, can really help themselves."
Rarely has a scouting report been more accurate.
Duke did have a bad day, partly as a result of NC State's relentless effort on the defensive end and partly as a result of the same kind of bad breaks and bad execution that have kept dozens of history's best teams from going through a season undefeated.
And Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales, Duke's two outstanding seniors, were right in the middle of that while battling tough matchups.
Yow, a Naismith Hall of Famer who led NC State to the 1998 Final Four, said she started ball handler Fields in place of Keisha Brown to spare guard Ashley Key the task of juggling running the offense and guarding Harding on defense. And though Harding simply missed a few good looks, the vast majority of her misses in a 3-for-13 shooting performance came on contested or off-balance shots as she sought to escape the attention of both a bigger defender in Key and NC State's help defense.
"I just wanted to try to make her shots a little bit more difficult, use my size a little bit," Key said. "As anybody knows, any given night, she can go off no matter who is on her, so I wanted to try and make it more difficult for her."
Size also factored in the matchup down low, where Bales squared off against 6-foot-7 Gillian Goring. And although foul trouble limited Goring to 24 minutes (she fouled out in the game's final minutes), few images from the game stand out like NC State's post catching and scoring on repeated lob passes over a fronting Bales or Goring slipping inside Bales for three key offensive rebounds.
It was almost fitting that after drawing Goring's fifth foul, Bales was unable to convert in the post as Duke looked to erase a 66-65 deficit in the final minute.
Key led the way with 21 points, including 3-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. But from Sasha Reaves extending the lead to three points in the final minute with her only points of the day to banged-up Khadijah Whittington repeatedly throwing herself into harm's way and either scoring baskets or setting up offensive rebound opportunities, the Wolfpack got nearly perfect performances out of everyone who ditched a shooting shirt.
Fields admitted there might be something in the air.
"A bunch of my teammates were talking about we had dreams, and, you know, it was just their time to lose," Fields said with a twinkle in her eye. "So I think once we got up this morning, everybody was ready to go and everybody was ready to play."
Not that anyone on NC State's sideline was ready to call it a weekend.
"We can celebrate now, but we know that we're trying to win a championship," Fields said. "So we're not going to celebrate too much until we get the championship. After that, we can celebrate maybe more, but we have to focus and be ready for whoever we play tomorrow."
She's right, of course. That's the only way Yow would have it. But for those few moments Saturday afternoon, as the Wolfpack danced at midcourt and the defeated Blue Devils stood united to honor a coach's courage, it seemed as though enjoying today was something we all should do more of.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Bad luck and bad execution did in Duke on Saturday. But NC State's relentless effort on defense -- and the way the team has come together for coach Kay Yow -- had a lot to do with it.