Three Hits: N.C. State squanders big lead, falls to SLU in OT

T.J. Warren (left -- 28 points, eight rebounds) and Ralston Turner (16 points) carried the scoring load for a Wolfpack club that shot 47 percent from the field against Saint Louis.   

With 8:13 left in the second half, sophomore star T.J. Warren (28 points on 11-of-22 shooting) converted a seemingly innocuous layup for N.C. State, boosting the club’s lead to 16 points (55-39).

At the time, no one could have guessed that bucket would indirectly trigger a dispiriting downfall for the Wolfpack, the result of sloppy ball-handling and porous free-throw shooting (20 of 37 for the night).

Not that Saint Louis fared any better from the charity stripe, hitting only 12 of 26 free throws — making the Billikens’ comeback victory (or the Wolfpack’s come-from-ahead defeat) all the more vexing:

To wit, even when Saint Louis trimmed its deficit to two or three points in the final two minutes, the club kept pressing and fouling (ignoring the 35-second shot clock), as if the Billikens were completely unaware of the altered circumstances on the scoreboard.

Who does that? It was an odd sight to see Saint Louis so oblivious to the situation.

And yet, N.C. State still couldn’t close the deal, committing one turnover and sinking only 3 of 7 free throws in the final 78 seconds of regulation.

In overtime, the Wolfpack could muster only three field goals against a fatigued Billikens defense that completely sold out on the premise of not allowing Warren to touch the ball in half-court sets (courtesy of SLU guard Jordair Jett — 18 points, five rebounds).

A brilliant move, in hindsight.

With Saint Louis leading by one and inbounding the ball from its own backcourt (from the side), North Carolina State had plenty of time (:29 seconds on the clock) to attempt a steal and then foul the Billikens (Plan B).

By extension, Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried really had nothing to lose by inserting a defensive replacement for Warren during that foul-or-steal sequence, allowing the team’s best player to rest up and avoid getting a fifth foul.

Instead, Gottfried left Warren in the game; and when the Billikens’ Rob Loe (22 points, 15 rebounds) caught a simple horizontal inbounds, Warren immediately fouled him — possibly unaware of his own fouls tally.

Can you imagine the Raleigh-based media querying Gottfried after the game? When trailing by one … the last thing any Wolfpack fan wanted to see was Warren commit a foul that anyone on the N.C. State bench could have executed, without consequence.

Fast forward two seconds of game action: After Saint Louis converted just one of two free throws, N.C. State — now down two — had a golden chance to force overtime or perhaps go for the win with 27 seconds left.

With no timeout called and with Warren watching from the bench, the Wolfpack set out for the game-tying score. At first, guard Tyler Lewis (eight points, seven turnovers) tried to get the ball from Desmond Lee, but SLU’s pressure defense along the perimeter was too tight.

So, after a few zig-zag dribbles, Lee then made a beeline to the basket, only to miss on his off-balance jumper from the right side. After the Billikens added another free throw, Ralston Turner’s long three-pointer fell short, ending the Wolfpack’s season on a sour note.

Reading the tea leaves for N.C. State, this was most likely Warren’s final game in red and white, as he’s slated to be a Round 1 pick in the upcoming draft ( slots him at No. 16 overall).

Warren would certainly go out on a personal high note, though, scoring 20-plus points in his final 21 collegiate outings — including back-to-back 40-plus games against Pittsburgh (March 3) and Boston College (March 9).

Saint Louis (27-6 overall) plays a little faster in the Jim Crews era than it did a few years ago, under the defensive-minded, possession-squeezing Rick Majerus (who passed away a few months ago).

But the Billikens still aren’t a run-and-gun club, like Louisville, meaning it would have to immediately control the tempo to foster any chance of pulling the upset.

It’s an interesting contrast between Louisville and Saint Louis:

The Cardinals garnered plenty of national attention for being "under-seeded" at No. 4, the result of claiming their first five March victories by a staggering average of 29.6 points.

The Billikens, in turn, were panned as perhaps the worst No. 5 seed of any region, partly due to a pair of bad losses to Duquesne and St. Bonaventure in recent weeks.

And yet, in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee, the schools have razor-thin differences.

As for N.C. State, which was just seconds away from reaching the Round of 32 in four straight NCAA berths as a double-digit seed (2005, 2006, 2012), the Wolfpack can only look forward to playing the Cardinals next year … as ACC brothers-in-arms.