N.C. State had it.
There was the 16-point lead with eight minutes left in regulation, the 10-point lead with four minutes, and a six-point advantage at the one-minute mark, but fast than you can say “Matt Freije,” N.C. State lost it.
Saint Louis, the veteran team, never panicked Thursday night at the Amway Center. The fifth-seeded Billikens chipped away at the lead, forced overtime and handed the 12th-seeded Wolfpack another brutal NCAA tournament loss in Orlando, this one 83-80 in overtime.
“Our players are heartbroken,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of the year we had but we’re always going to feel like we let one slip away.”
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It was 10 years ago, in the old Orlando Arena, when Freije helped Vanderbilt erased a 11-point deficit in the final 31/2 minutes in a round of 32 win against N.C. State.
Thursday’s collapse adds another painful chapter to recent Wolfpack history. Instead of a memorable win, N.C. State’s season ended with a numbing shot to the solar plexus. N.C. State, the last team in the at-large field, had beaten Xavier on Tuesday in Ohio and was just about to affirm its status as the bracket’s feel-good team.
A possible matchup with last year’s champion Louisville was so close, but a young Wolfpack team couldn’t grab it, not even with 28 points from T.J. Warren.
That’s because N.C. State (22-14) couldn’t make enough free throws. The Billikens (27-6), in a strategy that once helped N.C. State net a national title, started fouling and forced the Wolfpack to beat them from the foul line. N.C. State couldn’t do it.
The Wolfpack led 60-52 with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left when Saint Louis started its gambit. The Wolfpack’s misses hurt as much as the late scoring surge from senior guard Jordair Jett, who had 17 of his 18 points after the first half. The Wolfpack proceeded to go eight of 18 from the line for the rest of regulation.
“It’s hard to explain, we’re a good free-throw shooting team,” Gottfried said. “It kind of steamrolled on us there from the foul line.”
Playing for the fifth time in eight days, the Wolfpack just didn’t have the juice to close out a tournament-tested Saint Louis team that starts five seniors.
Jett’s layup for Saint Louis with 18.8 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 70. N.C. State sophomore guard Tyler Lewis had a chance to win the game, but his shot from near the foul line went in and out at the end of regulation.
Given a new lease on their third NCAA tournament appearance in as many years, the Atlantic-10 regular-season champs made the most of it in overtime. Forward Rob Loe scored four quick points to give him a team-best 22.
“They played like a veteran team,” Gottfried said.
Warren and the Wolfpack had one last chance, after it fell behind by five in OT. Junior guard Desmond Lee (13 points) scored on a drive to cut Saint Louis’ lead to 81-78 with 42.3 seconds left.
Warren stole the inbounds pass and scored with 37.9 seconds left and was fouled. Warren, who finished six of 14 from the foul line, missed the free throw.
“It felt good but it just didn’t fall for me,” he said of his last free throw.
Warren fouled Saint Louis’ Tanner Lancona on the ensuing inbounds play and fouled out of the game with 27.9 seconds left. Lancona missed one free throw, giving the Wolfpack another chance, but Lee missed in the lane and freshman forward Lennard Freeman couldn’t handle the putback attempt.
Mike McCall Jr. made one of two free throws for Saint Louis to give N.C. State a brief glimmer of hope, but Ralston Turner’s 3-pointer bounced off the front of the rim at the end of overtime.
N.C. State finished the game 54.1 percent (20 of 37) from the foul line. Saint Louis shot a lower percentage 46.2 (12 of 26), but made nine 3-pointers to N.C. State’s four.
The Wolfpack’s lead ballooned to 16 at 8:07 in the second half. Warren, who scored at least 20 points for the 19th straight game, scored in transition to put the Wolfpack up 55-39.
The Billikens chipped away but trailed 59-45 with five minutes left in regulation, 60-52 with three minutes left and 68-62 with a minute left.
The lead finally vanished in overtime. N.C. State left the floor in disbelief. The players tried to process what happened and tried to remember how much they had done to get to this point, instead of how the season ended.
“It’s definitely hard to think about right now,” said Turner, who finished with 16 points. “We can still be happy about this year. We exceeded anybody else’s expectations that they had for us.”