It only made sense for N.C. State to bring junior guard Trevor Lacey to the postgame news conference after Saturday’s 71-68 upset of No. 1 seed Villanova.
Lacey, after all, scored 17 points and led the Wolfpack to its first win against a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament since 1983. Forwards Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu, who each turned in a double-double, also were picked to meet the media in the Oz-like NCAA staging area behind a wall of curtains deep inside the Consol Energy Center.
Reserve senior guard Desmond Lee was back in the locker room, out of the spotlight. Overlooked by everyone else, Lee was not by his teammates.
“He’s the real MVP,” sophomore guard Cat Barber said. “He came off the bench and gave us a big boost, both scoring and defending.”
For Lee, who scored seven points and played 20 minutes against the guard-heavy Wildcats, it was the apex of an emotional season.
A season ago, he was a regular in the rotation, averaging 8.4 points and more than 24 minutes a game. But with the emergence of Lacey, the team’s leading scorer who sat out last season after he transferred from Alabama, Lee has been reduced to an “in case of emergency, break glass” role.
Lee, a junior-college transfer from Norfolk, Va., has seen his scoring average (2.9 points) and playing time (7.9 minutes) drop this season. He has not started a game, after starting 19 last season, and was held out of eight games by coach’s decision.
Lee, or “Dez” to everyone on the team, was crushed by the blowout loss to Duke in the ACC tournament, moved to tears in the locker room. He was crying again late Thursday after the Louisiana State win but for a different reason.
He was all smiles Saturday after he helped push the Wolfpack into the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
“I can’t lie, I got down a few times, but my teammates always pick me up,” said Lee, who added two rebounds and a steal against Villanova.
“My teammates just stay on me. You won’t find too many teammates like that. They actually care about another guy. They easily could say, ‘Well, I’m playing so it doesn’t matter.’ Those guys stayed with me and they always talked to me and they never looked at me any different. They felt my pain.”
Coach Mark Gottfried has been the first to admit it is a difficult situation for Lee. But every time Gottfried has called on him this season, Lee has been able to put aside his frustration, stay positive and find a way to help the team.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to hang in there when you don’t play a lot,” Gottfried said. “He has. He gave us great minutes.”
A 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard, Lee had a pair of key free throws to end a scoring drought in the win at North Carolina on Feb. 24. When Lacey missed an early December game against Charleston Southern, Lee stepped in, helped share the point-guard spot with Barber and chipped in nine points and three assists in a season-high 22 minutes.
Gottfried needed Lee, an aggressive defender and endless supply of energy during the second half of Thursday’s comeback against LSU in the Round of 64. Lee only played five minutes in the 66-65 win, but he had three rebounds and an assist, and his hustle helped jump-start what was a 16-point comeback.
Gottfried turned to Lee earlier against Villanova. After Barber and senior guard Ralston Turner both had two fouls during the first half, Lee came in with 13 minutes, 14 seconds remaining and helped set an early tone for N.C. State’s defense.
With 11:34 left, Lee recklessly dove on a loose ball under Villanova’s basket and quickly called a timeout to effectively come up with a turnover.
“That’s just Dez Lee playing hard, 100 miles per hour,” Lee said.
Villanova entered the game with 317 3-pointers made in 35 games, among the top 10 in the nation in that category. The Wildcats finished with nine 3s but needed 28 attempts. Guard Darrun Hilliard was 6-of-10, and three of those came during the final 90 seconds of the game.
When the Wolfpack’s upset bid was complete, it was Lee with the ball after an errant inbounds pass ended up in his arms under Villanova’s basket.
“Dez has been on coach all year, ‘Trust me, I can help this team,’” Lacey said.
That was the case Saturday. N.C. State wouldn’t be in the Sweet 16 without him.