RALEIGH, North Carolina (Ticker) -- It was fitting that Josh Howard sealed Wake Forest's first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title in 41 years.
Howard converted 6-of-6 free throws in the final two seconds to give the 10th-ranked Demon Deacons a 78-72 victory over North Carolina State to capture the conference crown.
It was indeed a special day for Wake Forest (23-4, 13-3 ACC), which closed with 11 wins in its last 12 conference games and passed Maryland and Duke, teams that have won won the last two national and ACC titles.
"We're thrilled to achieve this and the kids really deserve it," said second-year Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. "Josh is a great senior leader and all the players responded."
Despite having All-American players like Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress, Rodney Rogers, Rod Griffin, and Charlie Davis over the last four decades, the Demon Deacons had not claimed an outright title since 1962.
But Howard, the school's leading scorer each of the last two years and an All-American candidate, was able to lead Wake Forest to the crown in his senior season. And the 6-6 forward made the biggest play of Sunday's game. With the game tied at 72-72, Howard grabbed a loose ball underneath the basket after a shot by freshman Justin Gray failed to hit the rim and deflected off teammate Vytas Danelius.
Howard was fouled by Clifford Crawford as he went up for a shot just before the shot clock expired with just 1.7 seconds left.
"We contended that the shot clock may have expired, but they checked the monitor and decided otherwise," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. "I know there was obviously time left on the game clock, but the horn sounded on the shot clock. The question was whether the foul was called before that shot clock expired."
Howard converted both free throws despite trying to intentionally miss the second so time could run out.
But Howard intercepted the ensuing inbounds, was fouled and hit two free throws with under a second left as well as two technical foul shots.
Howard finished with 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 8-of-8 from the line.
Julius Hodge and Marcus Melvin had 17 points apiece for North Carolina State (16-11, 9-7), which squandered a 38-27 halftime lead.
But Wake Forest erased its deficit in a little more than 5 1/2 minutes, hitting nine of its first 10 shots, including 6-of-7 from 3-point range, and shot a sizzling 65 percent (17-of-26) in the second half.
"They were really on fire," Sendek said. "They came out and made shot after shot, some of them contested. It wasn't the last play or the last call that beat us. It was the period of time where we allowed them to get back on top of us when we had an 11-point lead."
Howard ignited a 20-4 run with a 3-pointer with 18:02 left and Jamaal Levy tied the game at 46-46 with a jumper from beyond the arc with 14:32 remaining.
Gray, who scored a total of 32 points in his previous two games, punctuated the spurt with back-to-back 3-pointers, giving Wake Forest a 52-46 advantage with 13:08 left.
But NC State, which may need one win in the ACC tournament to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, fought back with some 3-point shooting of its own. Scooter Sherrill and Hodge each hit jumpers from beyond the arc to give the lead back to the Wolfpack, 64-63 with 5:28 left.
The lead changed hands four more times - the last time North Carolina State held it was at 72-71 after a pair of free throws by Melvin by 1:19 remaining.
Danelius, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, tied it again when he hit 1-of-2 free throws with 1:07 left.
Sherrill missed a driving shot in the lane with 38 seconds remaining and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser called a timeout to set up the last shot.
It didn't go as planned when Gray threw up an airball in the final seconds, but Howard, who is considered by many a lock for ACC player of the year, came to the rescue.
Howard scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half in the Demon Deacons' 73-58 win over N.C. State on February 6. Wake Forest has won the last eight meetings from the Wolfpack.
N.C. State got off to a good start in this one, building a 28-17 lead. Crawford, the Wolfpack's lone senior playing in his final home game, scored nine of his 13 points in the half, including a pair of dunks.
A 3-pointer by Melvin with 4:10 left gave North Carolina State its biggest lead at 35-22.
"There's no doubt in my mind they're an NCAA team," Prosser said of the Wolfpack. "We feel very fortunate to have survived with a win. I can't say enough about our kids. They just refused to die."
N.C. State will be the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament and faces Georgia Tech on Friday.