For so long on Saturday night, it was like watching the sun set in the east, like seeing geese flying north for the winter.

The Syracuse University Orange, which would shoot 35 percent from the field, was struggling. No, wait. With its Big Three of C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney on the way to missing 25 of their 36 shots, SU was losing. No, wait. Trailing by five points with six minutes on the clock, the No. 1 club in the nation, the one with the unbeaten record, was, in fact, going to lose.

The party was over. The dream was done. The perfect season was about to become the imperfect one.

"I think they calculate percentages with certain times to go, percentages to win the game," said Jim Boeheim soon after the final horn. "We didn't have a good percentage to win this game or (the one in) Pittsburgh in the last part of it."

Didn't matter, though. This Syracuse outfit, like a vampire, is so very hard to kill. And North Carolina State, positioned to make the college basketball world bolt upright and gasp, had landed here, in what must have looked to the visitors like a tundra, without its wooden stake.

Stunningly, the Orange did not lose on Saturday night. It missed eight free throws, had as many turnovers as assists, splashed just two 3-pointers and scored merely three points in the affair's final 3:16.

And it still managed, thanks largely to a pair of huge defensive traps that produced a pair of takeaways during the mayhem's last 22 seconds, to win 56-55. Still managed to turn that record of 24-0 into 25-0. Still managed to send Central New York into another round of delirium.

Duke (and the splendor of that victory) . . . Pittsburgh (and the miracle of that triumph) . . . and now North Carolina State (and the unlikelihood of that conquest). All of that, plus wins over Notre Dame and Clemson, in a span of 15 Atlantic Coast Conference days.

Remarkable. Actually, it's one of those words that comes on the far side of remarkable.

"This team has reacted well to every tough situation they've been in or put themselves in," declared Boeheim, the coach of this unblemished squad that could probably tight-rope its way over the Falls (and who'd bet against that?). "And that's something they really should be given a lot of credit for."

Fact is, you just can't beat this bunch. At least it doesn't seem so. You might be as talented, you might be as passionate, you might be as willing to reach all the way to the bottom of your heart just as SU does. But you can't beat it.

At least there is no evidence of that. Not yet, anyway.

Because when a Fair is off, Rakeem Christmas scores 14 points, grabs 12 rebounds, blocks seven shots, goes 6-for-6 at the foul line and makes the evening's most crucial steal as he did against N.C. State. Because when an Ennis is off, Jerami Grant produces a double-double (14 rebounds, 12 points) and even tosses in a tough left-handed flip along the base line as he did against N.C. State. Because when a Cooney is off, Michael Gbinije provides 17 valuable off-the-bench minutes to help fill some gaps as he did against N.C. State.

And that, folks — grit, teamwork, production under duress — was so much of Saturday's story. Not all of it. But most of it.

Indeed, we also were given (1) Jake Flaherty, the former Syracuse linebacker who belted out the national anthem, unaccompanied, out there at the middle of the court; (2) Nina Davuluri, who sat in the front row beneath her crown and allowed Daryl Gross to bask in the knowledge that while the Panthers had trotted out Miss Pennsylvania on Wednesday in the Petersen Events Center, he'd landed Miss America for the Dome; and (3) Beejay Anya, the Wolfpack's 325-pound reserve center who took up some serious space not only under the basket but also in the back of his shorts.