When the regular season ended, Mark Gottfried described N.C. State as the “near miss” team.
The third-year Wolfpack basketball coach had no idea how correct he was at the time. After Thursday’s overtime loss to Saint Louis in the NCAA tournament, Gottfried could only wish he had been wrong.
N.C. State’s 83-80 loss to the Billikens in the Midwest Regional was the Wolfpack’s last, and most painful, in a line of “near misses” this season. Still, the progress the Wolfpack (22-14) made – the team was considered an NIT contender at best in October, and one that could wind up with a losing record at worst – can’t be overshadowed in the bitterness of Thursday’s loss.
“We played great throughout this last month,” sophomore guard Tyler Lewis said. “We just need to keep it going through next year.”
Given up for ACC also-rans several times, N.C. State rallied late to beat Pittsburgh on the road on March 3, Syracuse at the ACC tournament March 14 and Xavier in the NCAA tournament on Tuesday.
Gottfried did some of the best work and most rewarding of his 17-year career to not only keep this team together but to help it get better, despite a variety of setbacks.
There were lopsided losses, by 31 and 35 points to Virginia and Duke, respectively, in January and crushing emotional losses, by one point to Syracuse and North Carolina, in February.
But N.C. State kept coming back and kept improving. Through 37 minutes on Thursday, the Wolfpack looked like the team that started March ranked in the top 10, not Saint Louis. Even Gottfried felt comfortable when his team was up nine with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left.
“Yeah, I did,” Gottfried said after the game on Thursday night in Orlando, Fla. “I liked how we were playing. Defensively, we were really pretty good. Offensively, we did a lot of things well against their pressure.”
Saint Louis came into the game with one of the best defenses in the country, in the top 10 in Ken Pomeroy’s tempo free numbers and also in the top 20 in pure points allowed, but N.C. State had success against Saint Louis’ aggressive man-to-man pressure.
The foul line
Sophomore T.J. Warren led all scorers with 28 points but it wasn’t just Warren, the ACC’s player of the year and N.C. State’s first ACC scoring champion in 18 years. Ralston Turner had 16 points, Lewis had eight points and six assists. Freshman bigs Lennard Freeman (nine rebounds) and BeeJay Anya (three blocks) continued to show their development.
Unlike one-point losses at Syracuse on Feb. 15 or at home to North Carolina on Feb. 26, it wasn’t a lack of execution or mental errors that cost N.C. State. The Wolfpack lost the game from the foul line.
“This isn’t the same feeling,” Turner said. “In those games, we did a horrible job of finishing. In this game, we just couldn’t hit a free throw.”
Saint Louis started intentionally fouling with 2:46 left. From that point, N.C. State went 8 of 18 from the line. Even Warren, who has been such a strong team leader since the start of February, went 4 of 7 over that closing stretch and 6 of 14 for the game.
In overtime, Warren missed a free throw with 37.9 seconds left that would have tied the game at 81.
“It’s pretty tough, a couple went in and out,” Warren said.
N.C. State finished 20 of 37 (46.7 percent) from the foul line. Somehow, Saint Louis was even worse, shooting 12 of 26 (48.4 percent). But while the Wolfpack was missing free throws, Saint Louis was connecting from the 3-point line. In an 89-second span, after the 2:16 mark in the second half, the Billikens made three of its nine 3-pointers for the game.
Gottfried noted before the game that Saint Louis was a veteran, senior team, playing in its third NCAA tournament in three years. The Billikens never panicked on Thursday, even when it looked bleak.
N.C. State, with six freshmen and sophomores among its nine regular players, was among the youngest teams in the country. The way the team developed, from the productive partnership of Lewis and Cat Barber at point guard, to the promising trio of freshmen forwards, there’s hope the Wolfpack can build on its third straight NCAA appearance next season.
“Despite this loss we had a great year and we can be proud of that,” Turner said. “Throughout the year we made progress. Some teams don’t make progress. We did and we should be happy about that.”