P.J. Hairston scored 13 points despite a heavily wrapped and injured left (non-shooting) hand for the third-seeded Tar Heels (24-9), but his missed free throw with 16 seconds left gave Maryland a chance to force overtime.
The Terps called time out with 10.9 seconds left, and Logan Aronhalt took the inbounds pass and immediately launched an off-balance 30-foot airball.
Bullock snatched the ball and passed to Hairston, who was all alone near midcourt, and the Tar Heels ran out the clock to clinch their league-record 32nd appearance in the title game.
Next up: a meeting with No. 9 Miami, the tournament’s top seed, on Sunday with North Carolina’s 18th league tournament title on the line. The Hurricanes’ regular-season sweep included a humiliating 26-point win last month at Miami.
Alex Len had 20 points to lead seventh-seeded Maryland (22-12), which knocked off No. 2 Duke less than 24 hours earlier in the quarterfinals and nearly pulled off another upset.
The Terrapins trailed by 10 with just over 7 minutes left before rallying to make things tight down the stretch.
But every time they got too close, North Carolina had an answer.
Twice in the final 3 minutes, freshman guard Marcus Paige followed a Maryland basket by hitting a clutch shot of his own.
His jumper with 2:49 left came after Len cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 71-70. And after Dez Wells hit a layup to pull the Terps to 75-72 with 1:08 left, Paige drove the baseline for a pretty layup that put North Carolina back up by five with 36.5 seconds left.
He and Wells traded free throws in a 3-second span, and Aronhalt’s stickback with 17.3 seconds left pulled Maryland to 78-76. Hairston then hit 1 of 2 free throws 1.3 seconds later.
Big man James Michael McAdoo also finished with 13 points for the Tar Heels, who improved to 8-2 since inserting Hairston in the starting lineup and playing with four guards.
No. 9 Miami 81, N.C. State 71
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Lorenzo Brown makes North Carolina State a dangerous team in transition with his ability to find teammates or take it all the way himself. He just couldn’t get the Wolfpack running against No. 9 Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals.
Brown struggled with his shot while the Wolfpack continued to bumble away chances on the break in Saturday’s 81-71 loss, a frustratingly flat performance for a team that had looked sharp through its first two wins in Greensboro.
Brown scored six but went 0-for-6 from the field. Worse, he had five turnovers as the Wolfpack finished with just six fast-break points.
“I don’t even think it was the fact that (Miami) got back,” Brown said. “It was the fact no one was running. I think it was a lack of energy on our half.”
Brown missed the regular-season meeting with an ankle injury, and Miami needed a last-second tip-in to win that one on the road. But the 6-foot-5 junior and his teammates just couldn’t convert on the break in the rematch, down to missing free throws several times when they managed to draw a foul at the rim.
“It was just one thing after another,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “We couldn’t seem to capitalize on the fast break opportunities like we normally do. We wanted to run, we were out running. It was a little bit of trying to put a square peg in a round hole — it just didn’t work today.”
For Miami, Durand Scott scored a career-high 32 points while Shane Larkin added 23 as the top-seeded Hurricanes earned their first trip to the championship game.
Miami (26-6) led the entire way and by 19 points late in the first half. Miami shot 46 percent behind Scott, a senior guard who went 12-for-18 from the field and 5-for-8 from 3-point range.
Scott also had a couple of big shots that shut down comeback bids from the fifth-seeded Wolfpack (24-10), who got as close as six after halftime but couldn’t dig out of that big hole.
Miami also controlled the boards to score 18 second-chance points to go with 15 points off turnovers.
Now the Hurricanes can turn their attention to adding a tournament title to go with their first regular-season crown in Sunday’s final. They’ll face third-seeded seed North Carolina, which beat Maryland in the other semifinal.
Scott Wood scored 21 points with six 3s to lead N.C. State, which was in the semifinals for the second straight season. But both times, Gottfried’s team ran into a No. 1 seed that denied the Wolfpack a chance to win the program’s first tournament title since 1987 under Jim Valvano.
Scott scored 19 points in the first half, the last coming when he hit two free throws to give Miami its biggest lead at 39-20. N.C. State closed with a flurry to cut the deficit to 12 at half then got as close as 50-44 on Wood’s 3-pointer with 12 minutes left to re-energize a home-state crowd that had gone silent with Miami’s early dominance.
But Scott answered with a straightaway 3, holding his release long after the ball swished through the net. Then Larkin banked in a pullup shot to push the margin back to double figures.
Scott did it again a few minutes later, hitting a 3 over freshman Rodney Purvis as the shot clock wound down then holding his form again as the Hurricanes went up 13 with 7½ minutes left.
The Wolfpack twice more got the deficit to single digits in the final 2 minutes, but Larkin hit four straight free throws to answer those baskets then rebounded C.J. Leslie’s missed jumper that signaled an end to the Wolfpack’s run.
N.C. State shot 57 percent after halftime and 50 percent for the game, but never could recover from a bad start that saw the Wolfpack go scoreless for the first 5½ minutes.