ORLANDO, Fla. — Despite having no legitimate championship hopes, North Carolina State entered this year’s NCAA tournament carrying perhaps the heaviest burden in the field.
Arguably the least-deserving team to receive an at-large bid from the selection committee — with others thinking that SMU, Florida State or even Minnesota may have been more worthy of inclusion – the Wolfpack took to the Big Dance with an insatiable hunger to prove their many doubters wrong.
A convincing win over Xavier in the First Four Tuesday in Dayton may have quelled some of the skeptics, but NC State needed a win over a real team to prove, once and for all, that they truly belonged, and a second-round matchup with 5-seed Saint Louis at Amway Center afforded the Wolfpack that very opportunity.
Given the relative lack of surprise with which 12-seeds beat 5s these days – Harvard and North Dakota State each did it on Thursday — one may have even expected NC State to turn in the upset and advance to the round of 32. But instead, the Billikens ended NC State’s season in the most brutal of fashions, giving further credence to the argument that the Wolfpack should have been NIT-bound from the start.
Saint Louis’ 83-80 overtime win should have never even been a contest. For more than three-quarters of the game, NC State was the far superior unit and held a 16-point lead at 55-39 with 8:13 left in the second half. The rest seemed like a formality.
But then Saint Louis coach Jim Crews decided to dial up the pressure, siccing a full-court press on the Wolfpack frontcourt. He also had his players start fouling intentionally. And as NC State’s sure-handedness and foul shooting failed them, the lead dwindled, eventually evaporating completely.
NC State turned the ball over four times in those final eight minutes, but it was the free throws really that did them in. T.J. Warren missed one, then Desmond Lee, then Lennard Freeman, then Jordan Vandenberg, three times in a row. Anthony Barber got in on the action, missing a pair with the Pack leading by five with 55 seconds left, and another with the team up 69-66 with 45 ticks to go.
All told, NC State shot 10-for-21 from the line over the last 8:13 of regulation, and then in overtime, the game’s most elementary skill abandoned them again. Cruelly, Warren was fouled on a layup that cut the lead to one with 38 seconds left. He missed the free throw, one of eight total for the sophomore, and the Wolfpack never scored again.
"You know, it’s one of those things, it’s hard to explain," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "We’re a good foul shooting team. We’ve been a good foul shooting team here recently, and it kind of steamrolled on us there from the foul line."
To be sure, Saint Louis wasn’t much better from the stripe. The Billikens missed four of their final eight free throws down the stretch, as well. But Jordair Jett scored 12 of his 18 points during the team’s second-half run, including the game-tying basket with 18 seconds left in regulation, and the team stacked with seniors simply took advantage of one of the more deflating and inopportune meltdowns you’ll ever see.
"That’s probably the weirdest turn of events that I’ve ever been a part of," said Billikens forward Rob Loe, who led the team with 22 points and 15 rebounds. "We just didn’t want to give up. We didn’t want to end on that kind of note. We didn’t want to bow out of the tournament this early. We wanted to win. We’re here to win, and we’re here to put our mark on basketball. We just wanted to keep fighting."
NC State knows the feeling, of course. They just kept fighting when they beat Syracuse in the ACC tournament, putting themselves on a bubble that most assumed had popped. They kept fighting against Duke in the ACC semis, making enough of an impression to get themselves an invite to Dayton. They kept fighting against Xavier, giving themselves a chance to prove that their resume warranted the recognition of making the field.
But in the end, the team with the most to prove put on its worst possible performance, ending a brief run many didn’t think they deserved the chance to make.
"You know, pressure is what you make it," said Wolfpack guard Ralston Turner. "I wouldn’t say the pressure made us miss the free throws. I don’t really have an answer for you as to why we missed them, but sometimes uncharacteristic things (happen), and I think that happened today."
"It’s heartbreaking," Gottfried added. "Our players are heartbroken."
And now they know how the teams on the other side of the bubble feel.