There will be time to lament the opportunity lost.
Without a major obstacle left in its bracket, N.C. State had a chance to make history. The door was open in the NCAA tournament, but Louisville wouldn’t let the Wolfpack walk through it.
The Cardinals, with 24 points from Montrezl Harrell and an unexpected second-half burst from Anton Gill, ended N.C. State’s season with a 75-65 win Friday night in the Sweet 16.
But N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was more concerned with what his team accomplished this season than what it didn’t.
“We’re disappointed,” Gottfried said. “It’s a tough way to end it, but, man, I’m proud, really, really proud of our guys.
“This group completely, completely did some amazing things.”
The Wolfpack (22-14) was an NIT team six weeks ago before knocking off Louisville and North Carolina on the road. In the tournament, the Wolfpack erased a 16-point deficit in the second half to beat LSU in the Round of 64 and then upset No. 1 seed Villanova to reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
This successful NCAA trip was just as unexpected as the one in Gottfried’s first season in 2012. As Gottfried pointed out, his team had to replace T.J. Warren, last season’s ACC player of the year, and was picked to finish 10th in the ACC.
The Wolfpack looked like it was on its way to its first Sweet 16 win since 1986 when junior guard Trevor Lacey (18 points) hit a 3-pointer with 7:12 left to put the Wolfpack up 54-53.
Then Gill, a little-used reserve guard from Raleigh, came off the bench and saved the Cardinals.
Gill, who was on the floor because senior wing Wayne Blackshear had four fouls, made a driving basket, then buried a 3-pointer over N.C. State’s zone. His driving hoop with 3:33 left staked Louisville to a lead, 62-57, it didn’t give up.
Gill had played two minutes in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for Louisville. Those were his first points of the postseason.
“We didn’t expect Gill to come out and go on a 7-0 spurt like that, but credit Rick Pitino and their guys for giving him confidence and letting him play,” Lacey said.
While Gill shone and Harrell did the heavy lifting, N.C. State struggled to find holes in Louisville’s 2-3 zone.
Senior guard Ralston Turner chipped in 12 points and sophomore forward Kyle Washington added 11 points off the bench. But N.C. State shot 38.3 percent (23-of-60) and point guard Cat Barber couldn’t get going.
Barber finished with eight points and shot 3-of-14. He had 21 points in the Wolfpack’s road win against the fourth-seeded Cardinals (27-8) last month.
Gottfried said Barber came down with a stomach bug Thursday night and didn’t get much sleep or have much energy.
“He had no zip,” Gottfried said.
Barber said he was still struggling to find his legs Friday.
“I don’t want to blame it on that, but I wasn’t feeling well,” Barber said.
Barber did make consecutive 3-pointers to start the second half to give the Wolfpack a 39-33 advantage. The Cardinals responded with a 14-2 run, with half of the points coming from Harrell, to surge back in front, 47-41.
The teams traded baskets until Gill came in and changed the tenor of the game.
“That one stretch was really just the difference in the game,” Gottfried said.
And just like that, the opportunity was gone. New history will have to wait for another year.
As disappointed as N.C. State was by the loss, Lacey said there’s still a sense of pride in what the team did to get this far.
“To advance past the first weekend, that takes a lot,” Lacey said. “To be one of 16 teams left is a great accomplishment.”