ST. LOUIS — From its dramatic selection three weeks ago, through wins over San Diego State and Georgetown and up until halftime of its Midwest Regional semifinal game with Kansas, N.C. State had only experienced the elation of the NCAA tournament.
A 60-57 loss to the Jayhawks on Friday night gave the Wolfpack a sobering taste of the cruelty and finality of the tournament.
Subdued yet proud, coach Mark Gottfried wanted what he couldnt have when he took the interview podium at the Edward Jones Dome after late Friday turned into early Saturday more time.
Well all step back and look at what was actually accomplished, Gottfried said. And I think for all that these guys need to hold their heads really high. They really do.
In his first 11 months on the job, Gottfried won 24 games, the most by any N.C. State coach since Jim Valvano. He took the Wolfpack back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and into the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1989.
Nobody had us to be here, N.C. States star sophomore C.J. Leslie said.
For a program that went 15-16 a year ago and hadnt won more than six ACC games in a season in five years Gottfrieds team won nine it was not only progress but the first step toward returning a proud program to national relevance.
Still, there was a what if? quality to the ending of States remarkable season, and a larger question: Whats next?
Leslie, who led State with 18 points despite foul trouble Friday, has a decision to make about his NBA future. The teams leading scorer, he blossomed into a potential first-round pick under Gottfried this season. Senior guard C.J. Williams, a starter, and Alex Johnson, the top guard off the bench, also will have to be replaced.
Sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown, who had 10 points and seven rebounds Friday, played at an elite level over the seasons last six weeks, prompting Kansas coach Bill Self to call him a pro after Fridays game. Brown could possibly test his NBA potential, although after the game he didnt sound like a player who was leaving.
Brown pointed to the players coming back guard Scott Wood and forwards Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter and the recruits coming in a trio of McDonalds All-Americans in guards Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis and forward T.J. Warren as a reason for optimism that Gottfried can build on his first-year success.
Ive got to take the young guys under my wing, Brown said. Weve got two great guards coming in Rodney and Tyler. Ive got to help them as much as I can.
Howell, who finished with a game-high 16 rebounds, was too busy trying to come to grips with Fridays ending to start thinking about the future. The Pack (24-13) had four chances in the final 42 seconds to win the game or send it to overtime.
Convert on any of those chances and N.C. State would have had a fourth shot at North Carolina, which beat Ohio in overtime earlier Friday night, with a trip to the Final Four as the prize.
We felt like we should have won that game, and we let it get away, Howell said. We had a lot of chances.
Howell had the last chance Friday, after Kansas kept missing free throws and leaving the door open. Howell caught Williams perfect full-court inbounds pass about 25 feet from the basket, right in front of N.C. States bench.
The plan was to kick the ball to Wood, waiting about 5 feet to his right at the 3-point line, but with only 2.9 seconds on the clock when the play started, Howell thought he was out of time and his 3-pointer fell short of the rim.
That was my mistake, Howell said. If I knew there was that much time, I would have kicked it to Scott.
Wood had his own chances, missing a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 27 seconds left and then stepping out of bounds with 5 seconds left after jumping to catch a cross-court pass.
Wood was optimistic about where the program can go from here.
Were not satisfied, Wood said. We feel like we have some good talent coming in and some good talent returning hopefully next year we can build on this.
How N.C. State builds on this seasons success is key. UNC and Duke have seized control of the ACC with consistent excellence.
Gottfried, who already has earned a two-year contract extension by making the tournament, understands this is only a start.
When Gottfried was hired last April, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said the Wolfpack was back. Gottfried cautioned her to slow down.
Were not back yet, Gottfried said then. Were almost back.
Whether Yow or Gottfried was right depends on where State goes from here.