The third time was not the charm. In its third consecutive trip to the NCAA First Four, N.C. Central came up short once again, this time falling to North Dakota State, 78-74.
The win by the Bison (19-15) sets up a showdown with overall top seed Duke in Columbia, S.C. on Friday. The Eagles end the season 18-16 overall, but head back to Durham for the third straight year disappointed. This one hurt the most, with N.C. Central appearing to be in control in the final minutes.
Larry McKnight, Jr. hit his third 3-pointer of the second half to give the Eagles a 66-61 lead with 5:24 remaining in the game, but NDSU had more left in the tank, rallying by getting to the line -- six straight free throws -- and tying the game at 68 on an open three from Sam Griesel, his only three of the game. The Bison outscored the Eagles 17-8 the rest of the way.
“I thought we had the game to be honest,” McKnight said. “Everything felt good, I thought we had them. We were right where we needed to be.”
North Dakota State forward Tyson Ward took over for the Bison down the stretch, scoring seven in a row as NDSU took a 75-70 lead with one minute remaining. Just four minutes earlier, N.C. Central had its biggest lead of the second half, but the ball wouldn’t bounce their way again in Dayton. Zacarry Douglas had two shots at the rim, but missed them both. On the other end, NDSU answered with a free throw by Ward, taking a one-point lead. NDSU would never trail again.
McKnight scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half, and felt like the Eagles were on their way to Columbia after his big bucket.
Raasean Davis added 20 points and 16 rebounds in his final game. N.C. Central also got big games from Randy Miller, Jr. (18) and Douglas (14). Ward led the Bison with a game-high 23 points. Vinnie Shahid added 14, while Jared Samuelson and Griesel each added 10.
The free throw by Ward to give NDSU a one-point lead was a tough one for McKnight and Moton. McKnight felt he was in the right position. Moton said he wishes the outcome of the game was left up to the 10 players on the court.
“We don’t get explanations,” Moton said. “I would like for the game to be decided by the players and we don’t have to ask questions concerning referees, but they are human. Even though we don’t agree with it, such is life.”
Moton got emotional talking about his most recent trip to Dayton, and the one that will probably haunt him more than the others. Last season against Texas Southern, the game was over midway through the second half. This time around, N.C. Central was on the brink of history and a rare showdown with their Durham neighbors.
“All of them hurt, I just hurt for the kids, man” Moton said drying tears from his eyes. “Y’all see the basketball, but it’s 22 hours of life that we are responsible for as coaches. All of my seniors are incredible kids and they become your children and just like anything for your kids you don’t want to see them hurting. Just the fact it’s their last game ... our locker room is like a funeral home right now.”
N.C. Central tried to match the hot shooting of NDSU in the first half, attempting 13 3-pointers, only connecting on four.
The Eagles started the second half with two offensive fouls and back-to-back turnovers, with one basket sandwiched in between. The Bison got a three-point play from Griesel and turned an N.C. Central turnover into a three -- this time from Ward -- giving NDSU a 10-point lead early in the second half.
“I thought what really hurt us in the first half was Raasean got two fouls and we didn’t finish the first half well,” Moton said. “They went on a 6-0 run to close the half. In the second half we got down 10 or 12 and I told them don’t look at the scoreboard and just do what we do and let’s just fight.”
The Eagles got it together and went on a 9-0 run after falling behind 13. During the Eagles’ run, the Bison missed three straight shots and were 1-of-6 from the field.
N.C. Central took advantage, scoring four in a row to tie the game at 58 on a corner 3 from McKnight. McKnight started the mini-run with a layup, then Miller hit a wide open 3 from the right wing to make it 56-53. Miller received a pass from Davis, who was laying on his back just outside the lane.
Douglas then hit a twisting layup in the lane before McKnight, wide open in the corner, hit his second 3 of the game, this one firing up the N.C. Central crowd.
Moments later, McKnight found himself wide open in the same spot. Once again his shot found the bottom of the net, giving the Eagles their first lead, 61-59, of the second half. It wasn’t at that moment McKnight thought it was over, but it came two buckets later. But that joy was short lived as Ward scored eight of his 23 in the last four minutes. After NDSU went up one, the Eagles only made one field goal the rest of the way.
“That final stretch it came down to the wire,” McKnight said. “Margin of error is supposed to be limited, and we made a couple of errors at the end that put us in the back end.”
Moton said the last game of the season never gets any easier, and at the end of the year only one team will be left standing, feeling good about themselves.
“Unfortunately in this tournament 64 more other teams are going to feel the exact same way,” Moton said. “My grandmother told me something when I was young and I’ll never forget it. And it’s the realist thing I’ve ever heard in my life. She always told me: the same thing that makes you laugh will make you cry. The exact same thing. And last week we were crying tears of joy, but this week we’re crying tears of sorrow. And not because we didn’t perform our best, but because it’s over.”