ST. LOUIS — N.C. State wasnt done when C.J. Leslie picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, not when Kansas twice ran its lead to 10 points.
Each time, the Wolfpack clawed back, getting it down to one point in the final minute, staying in the fight, until N.C. State finally ran out of time.
The run that revitalized N.C. State basketball came to an end late Friday night with a 60-57 loss to Kansas, but its impact will be felt for a long, long time.
The Jayhawks came out for the second half with 20,000 screaming rock-chalkers behind them, and the Wolfpack never could close the gap, even with three chances to take the lead or force overtime in the final minute.
It came down to one last shot, N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown said. Thats how it goes sometimes.
Until the final moment, it felt like this postseason had been moving toward an inevitable climax. In a year when the ACC announced the North Carolina-N.C. State rivalry no longer matters to the conference, the two teams involved did just about everything possible to prove its relevance.
A re-re-rematch Sunday would have been the biggest game between two Triangle teams ever, in decades at least. Duke and North Carolina were on track toward a title-game matchup in 1991 before Kansas got in the way, derailing the Tar Heels in the semis before losing to the Blue Devils in the final.
The Jayhawks got in the way again.
At halftime, the Wolfpacks entire frontcourt was in serious foul trouble, Withey had seven blocks and N.C. State came out of the first half with a one-point lead thanks to a Leslie bucket, going around both Thomas Robinson and Withey to score.
If anything, that encapsulated the NCAA tournament for N.C. State: No matter the obstacle, the Wolfpack found a way around it.
Not Kansas. There was no way around Kansas.
Im not sure I could be more proud than I am of our team, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. This team learned how to compete, they learned how to keep fighting, and they did it again today. We just came up just a little bit short. We grew a lot. We improved a lot. But its just tough because we felt we certainly had a chance and could have won the game.
But even Fridays loss cant derail the momentum N.C. State built during this run. It started out with the Wolfpack building a foundation for next year. Then it turned out next year was here, far sooner than anyone -- the players, the coaches, even Debbie Yow, who took a chance on Gottfried in the first place -- could have imagined.
It will be different next year, without question. Leslie and Brown will take a long look at the NBA, and if the scouts murmurs are correct, they wont be coming back. The three McDonalds all-Americans will take their place.
Yet this postseason did more than build a foundation. It rebuilt the very bedrock upon which the program was built; it made N.C. State relevant again in a way that only winning can.
We set a standard, said C.J. Williams, the teams only four-year senior. Its time for the youngsters coming in to reach that standard and surpass it. We got to the Sweet 16. Its up to them to get N.C. State back to the Final Four.
Williams was the last player off the court, hands on his hips. His career is over. N.C. State may just be getting started.