Ernest Ross had never before, in two seasons at N.C. State, been the first player through the postgame handshake line. Over the course of his career, he’s more often been at the back, still in his warmups, maybe not even a bead of sweat on his brow.
He led the way toward the Miami players Saturday, at the very front of the line, and he was the first to exit the court, bouncing toward the locker room through a tunnel of giddy fans, arms raised in triumph.
From (almost) beginning to end, from the time he came off the bench to the very final play of the game, Ross was in the right place at the right time, time and time again. With the last two baskets of the first half. With a key layup to put N.C. State ahead in the late moments of regulation. On the receiving end of three of D.J. Burns’ seven assists, catching and converting the no-look passes that have, Ross admitted, pinged off his head more than once in practice.
And, after all that, scoring the final five points of an 83-81 overtime win. A guy who hadn’t played more than 18 minutes in any game this season, whose career-high stood at all of six points Saturday morning, somehow became the difference for the Wolfpack in a raucous — and, at times, rocky — home win over the 16th-ranked team in the country.
“This is my opportunity and I just used my opportunity well,” Ross said. “I’ve been working my ass off the past two years, coming back from an injury, so I’m just trying to show my talent.”
At one point, the very loud crowd chanted Burns’ name, after yet another basket in the post from the Winthrop transfer who has become an instant fan favorite. They probably should have been serenading Ross.
But that’s the way it’s been for the Wolfpack lately in the three wins since the loss at Clemson, in the period they have been missing both Dusan Mahorcic and Jack Clark. Those guys at the end of the bench, the last ones through the handshake line, have all had their moment. Ebenezer Dowuona’s 12 points against Duke. Greg Gantt’s nine rebounds at Virginia Tech.
And then, blowing them all away, this spectacular afternoon from Ross, who finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and no turnovers in 21 minutes that N.C. State sorely needed after squandering a 10-point halftime lead and letting Isaiah Wong take over the game in the second half.
The Wolfpack has three top-drawer ACC wins now, all in the past 11 days, and for the first time in what feels like forever, N.C. State has a chance to avoid the bubble conversation entirely and play its way into the NCAA tournament beyond any doubt. Sometimes, it takes a little of the unexpected to get into that position.
“Did I see him playing like that? I thought he could get 12 and five,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts joked, because nobody saw this coming.
Ross was still out there at the very end, with Miami down two points and 12 seconds to go in overtime, the ball in Wong’s dangerous hands. As the Hurricanes tried to free Wong for the last shot, Ross helped steer Wong into Jarkel Joiner, who was able to pry the ball loose. And as N.C. State inbounded with 0.2 seconds left, needing only to throw it into safe hands, they were Ross’ hands at midcourt.
It was a long way from anywhere the 6-foot-9 sophomore had been before. He was used sparingly a year ago even given the Wolfpack’s weaknesses in the frontcourt before his season ended in January with a broken ankle. Even this season, he was behind Mahorcic … and Clark … and Dowuona … and Gantt in the rotation. He played six minutes against Duke, three against Virginia Tech. On Saturday, his patience paid off.
In the locker room afterward, Ross’ uniform soaked and his stall splattered with water droplets from the impromptu shower his teammates delivered in celebration — and acknowledgment of his unexpected star cameo — Ross seemed anything but overwhelmed by the moment. During the game, he said, he was never really able to take stock of what was happening. Even afterward, he tried to take it in stride, as much as that’s possible.
“I’ve always got to stay ready, because my brothers, they’re in front of me, and they do what they do,” Ross said. “And I come behind them and I can work for them, too.”
And on Saturday, Ross was out in front of everyone, right to the end.
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