WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Kevin Keatts called Saturday’s game between his NC State basketball team and Wake Forest “an ACC Tournament elimination game.”

He was referring to the rapidly approaching event in Washington DC that will determine the conference’s official champion.

But he might as well be talking about that other tournament that’s held during the month of March.

For Keatts’ Wolfpack, who likely need a set of binoculars just to see the NCAA bubble, every game from here on out has that kind of importance. And even though Steve Forbes’ Deacons appear to be in much better shape, at least as far as the confounding NET rankings are concerned, the memory of their 2022 snub has taught them not to take anything for granted.

Every game this time of the year is important.

This one, won by Wake 83-79 on a basket by Andrew Carr with 17 seconds remaining, had an even more intense feel than usual.

Maybe that had something to do with the chippiness that punctuated the final moments of State’s come-from-behind win against Wake in Raleigh 3½ weeks ago. Maybe it had something to do with the atmosphere provided by the near-sellout crowd. Or just that both teams really needed the win.

Whatever the reason, both teams played as though their seasons were on the line.

Which it might have been. At least for 1 of the teams.

“I thought the whole 2nd half wasn’t really about Xs and Os,” Forbes said afterward. “It was about being competitive.”

Coming in ranked No. 80 in the net – despite sporting a nearly identical overall and conference record to their opponent – the Wolfpack showed more of that competitiveness early on.

They swarmed the Deacons with their defense, won the rebounding battle and showed plenty of emotion, especially on the part of star guard DJ Horne, on the way to building a 45-39 lead at the break.

But their sense of urgency proved to be contagious.

Wake began to catch some of it in the final minute of the half when Horne’s chirping led to a shoving match and matching technicals for himself and the Deacons’ Cam Hildreth. And, as Forbes noted, the intensity level on both sides increased exponentially from that point on.

“In that situation, there’s a lot of back-and-forth,” Hildreth said. “It just shows how much you care and how much you want to win. … We need to win games. It doesn’t really matter who you play. And you want to protect your home court, especially.”

Hildreth and his teammate certainly accomplished that goal, protecting the Joel Coliseum floor where they’re 13-0 this season as if they were facing an invading army rather than just a hungry pack of Wolves. The final 20 minutes had a distinct postseason feel to it.

The chess match between the coaches, the physical play, the punches and counterpunches.

And the heroic individual performances.

The best of those were provided by Horne and his Wake counterpart Hunter Sallis.

For a while, it looked as if the 2 were playing a game of 1-on-1. Every time Horne would make a circus shot in the lane or drain 1 of his 4 3-pointers, Sallis would answer right back with one of his own.

As it turned out, their individual battle was a mirror of the actual game.

Sallis finished with 33 points. Horne ended up with 33. Had his contested jumper in the lane with just over 1 second remaining, not only would have matched Sallis’ point total, but he would also have tied the game and sent it into overtime.

The loss deprived State of a badly needed Quad 1 victory that would have greatly enhanced its NCAA chances.

And yet, in a quirk that illustrates how flawed the NET system is, the unfavorable outcome still has the potential to help the Wolfpack. If Wake is able to sneak into the top 30 of the rankings, State’s earlier win in Raleigh would be elevated from a Quad 2 victory to a more valuable Quad 1 result.

That could happen as early as Monday, when the Deacons play No. 9 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It’s a metric that had Keatts’ head ready to explode as he pondered the possibilities following the hard-fought game.

“I know everything is about numbers. But I hate talking about numbers,” he said. “At the end of the day if you’re watching that game on TV and you’re saying ‘man, look at those 2 teams. You can’t tell me that’s not 2 teams you could see playing in March.”

As much as Saturday’s game felt like a must-win situation for Keatts’ team, which fell to 15-9 (7-6 ACC) it still has enough Quad 1 opportunities among its remaining 7 games to get back into the Tournament conversation.

But at some point, the Wolfpack is going to have to take advantage of those opportunities to even have a shot.

Otherwise, once they get to Washington DC in early March, they really will be faced with an ACC Tournament elimination game.