Maybe N.C. State’s sole purpose in the NCAA tournament is to prove that basketball gods exist.
There aren’t many other plausible explanations for the Wolfpack’s 66-65 comeback victory against LSU on Thursday night in the Round of 64.
Sophomore forward BeeJay Anya’s spinning hook shot with 0.1 seconds left gave N.C. State its first lead of the second half. It was the only one N.C. State needed.
N.C. State (21-13) erased a 16-point second-half deficit to advance to Saturday’s matchup in the East Region with No. 1 seed Villanova.
It was only last year, in the same round, N.C. State squandered a 14-point lead in the final 5 minutes of regulation and suffered a soul-crushing 83-80 defeat in overtime.
Hoops deity or not, the Wolfpack got that one back Thursday night with an improbable comeback and an improbable ending.
Anya, known more for his defense, scored the last four points of the game. His tip-in with 46.2 seconds left cut LSU’s lead to 65-64. After Jordan Mickey missed a contested shot on the next possession, N.C. State got the ball back with 13.9 seconds left.
N.C. State had been in similar spots earlier this season and coach Mark Gottfried has always gone to junior guard Trevor Lacey. Gottfried drew up another play for Lacey but LSU guard Tim Quarterman cut off his path to the basket.
"When I stepped back, I could have shot it, but the way the game was going offensively, I wasn't comfortable taking that shot,” said Lacey who was 4 of 15 from the field. “I'm not big on trying to be that hero. I saw BeeJay and I was going to get it back but he saw an opening and made a great play."
Anya didn’t hesitate with Mickey on his hip. He spun and put up a left-handed hook shot that bounced off the front of the rim twice before it feel through.
"(Trevor’s) as good as anybody in the country when he has room to play but Quarterman did a great job defending him,” Gottfried said. “Trevor threw the ball to BeeJay and just instinctively, he went right to it."
The way the game started, it looked like N.C. State would never have the chance to make a comeback. LSU used an array of dunks and dominance on the glass to build a 42-26 advantage in the opening minute of the second half and a 62-50 lead with 8:30 left in the game.
“It was like a dunk contest,” Gottfried said.
But N.C. State’s defense got better and it was able to methodically cut into LSU’s double-digit lead.
N.C. State’s comeback got started with an unlikely spark from forward Kyle Washington, who had nine points and four rebounds in 12 minutes.
The sophomore forward’s role has been dramatically reduced over the past month but he had a dunk, over LSU’s Jarell Martin — who had dunked on him in the first half — and then a 3-pointer to cut LSU’s lead down to 62-58 with 5:50 to play.
"I just owed Jarell Martin one because he punched on me,” Washington said. “I had to get one back. It felt good and it loosened me up."
A basket by Lacey with 2:36 to play cut LSU’s lead to 65-62 and then N.C. State missed three 3-point shots to tie the game.
LSU helped with miss free throws, seven of their last 11 and their final six, but none bigger than the pair forward Jordan Mickey missed with 1:03 left in the game.
Sophomore guard Cat Barber bounced back from an abbreviated scoreless outing against Duke in the ACC tournament and led the Wolfpack with 17 points. Freshman Abdul-Malik Abu added 13.
Lacey couldn’t find his shot and finished with nine points. Turns out, N.C. State didn’t need another last-second shot from Lacey, just a little hook from Anya for some tournament payback.