by Neil Morris
TBS—One possession separated N.C. State from destiny: their first trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament since 1986 and, more tantalizing for North Carolina sports fanatics, arguably the most significant basketball game between the Wolfpack and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the schools’ storied rivalry.
In the end, N.C. State’s 60-57 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks at the Midwest Regionals in St. Louis unfolded like most Wolfpack games against ranked competition this season: shooting was poor, rebounding was strong, and turnovers were a bit high. And, like so many losses this season, the Pack squandered an early lead, were nearly put away by their opponent in the second half yet managed to stay close until the ignominious end.
Indeed, considering the back-and-forth feel of the contest, a glance at the box score shows that while N.C. State led the opening 10 minutes of the game, they would only lead once more after Thomas Robinson’s free throws tied the game at 17 with 9:23 left in the first half. C.J. Leslie’s basket gave the Wolfpack a 33-32 halftime lead, but Kansas’s Elijah Johnson three-pointer less than 15 seconds removed from intermission put the Jayhawks ahead to stay.
N.C. State found themselves bothered by two season-long bugaboos: foul trouble and tall opponents. Leslie—who scored a team-high 18 points and otherwise had the sort of eye-opening tournament that raises NBA draft stock—played only 24 minutes after picking up his fourth foul with over 15 minutes left in the game (and suffering a brief recurrence of chronic leg cramps).
Meanwhile, Kansas outscored the Wolfpack 44-22 in the paint, thanks mainly to 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who had 10 blocks and thwarted State’s interior play. Richard Howell, who did snag a game-high 16 rebounds, nevertheless shot only 2-for-12 going against Withey’s towering frame and long arms.
Still, despite being down 10 with seven minutes left to play, the Pack clawed back. C.J. Williams’ dunk off a Lorenzo Brown steal and assist made the score 58-57 with 1:21 left. After Kansas turned the ball over with 42 seconds remaining, N.C. State appeared poised to complete an improbable comeback.
However, State failed to take advantage of several key chances down the stretch. After calling timeout with 37 seconds left, Scott Wood missed a long three-pointer with 27 seconds on the clock. Leslie snared the rebound, but instead of holding the ball for the last shot, he immediately attempted an off-balance, left-hand layup that Withey easily blocked.
Brown fouled Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, who missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 16 seconds left. However, Howell failed to corral the rebound and instead deflected the ball out-of-bounds. The Pack then surrendered an uncontested layup off the inbounds to give the Jayhawks a three-point lead.
Needing a three-pointer to tie, State turned the ball over with five seconds to go after Wood stepped out-of-bounds trying to grab a cross-court pass from Brown. Robinson missed another free throw for Kansas to give the Pack a final chance, but a last-second heave by Howell failed to draw iron.
Despite understandably disappointment, N.C. State holds plentiful reasons for Pack pride. The team finished in the top half of the ACC after going 5-12 in conference play last season. They broke a five-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, advanced to the Sweet 16 and, more importantly, inserted N.C. State basketball back into the national consciousness. And, coach Mark Gottfried has a nationally touted recruiting class already slated for Raleigh next season.
Optimism—and undoubtedly expectations—will return to lofty heights. Wolfpack players, coaches and supporters wouldn’t have it any other way.