PITTSBURGH—The game was nearly 20 minutes in the books and the hollering had quieted in North Carolina State locker room, where the Wolfpack had until moments earlier been circled up and shouting celebratory non sequiturs and proudly reciting a roll call of pundits who had wrongly predicted they would be spending their Saturday night in no such spirits. Soon it would be time for four of them to parade down to the dais to address the press, and so Trevor Lacey, the team’s star junior guard, emerged into the hallway in his team-issued all-black adidas sweat suit to begin his trek. There he was halted immediately by a staff member who gestured the hall’s opposite direction, where Villanova coach Jay Wright and players Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard were approaching from some 30 yards away, silent and funereal, for their own postgame media duties. Lacey looked up and said nothing, his face still but seeming to cycle quickly through recognition and understanding and maybe even sympathy, and then he pushed open the locker room’s swinging door and disappeared again.
This was one of Saturday’s rarest sights: a willing N.C. State concession to the top-seeded Wildcats, an unprotested stepping aside to let Villanova proceed as planned. In its 71-68 win, the No. 8-seeded Wolfpack became the first team to send home one of this tournament’s No. 1 seeds because it made no such acquiesces. It contested an array of shots around the rim and responded to every one of the favorite’s surges, grabbed nearly three quarters of available defensive rebounds and an untold number of 50/50 balls, and flipped an expected battle between backcourts into a test of interior wills. In that same locker room before the game, a team manager had passed around a blog post suggesting that even N.C. State’s finest effort would not be enough to fell the Wildcats, losers of just two games all season and 9.5-point favorites coming off a 41-point thrashing of poor Lafayette. It would not let that go by easily either.
“We used all that to add fuel to the fire,” Lacey said after scoring a team-high 17 points. “It shouldn’t take that, but we like those things to get us over the hump.”
This was a team picked 10th in the ACC before the season, that went two midseason months without consecutive wins, that knocked off Duke but lost at home to Wofford, that slayed North Carolina and Louisville but succumbed to Wake Forest and Boston College. After a loss to Clemson on Jan. 28, senior Ralston Turner called a players-only meeting, that staple of desperation, during which the team aired grievances, including the walk-ons’ lament that it was difficult to watch those granted so much court time fill it with such inconsistent energy.
“This team could’ve given up,” Lacey said Friday. “After every loss or every win, [Turner's] kept guys level. We lost to Boston College and it was like, all right, throw it out. We beat Syracuse and it was like all right, come out and beat Pitt. It’s just always level, on to the next game.”
They won six of eight to end the season and then were nearly dunked out of the postseason by a springy LSU team in the Round of 64 in a game in which they trailed by 16 in the second half. The Tigers catalyzed the Wolfpack’s comeback by going stone-dry down the stretch, including four consecutive missed free throws in the final minute, and N.C. State won when an isolation playcall was audibled into a dump-off that seldom-scoring big man BeeJay Anya turned into an unexpected left-handed jump-hook just before the buzzer sounded.
For much of Saturday’s game it seemed there would be no such need for nail-biting. The Wildcats could scarcely hit a jump shot in the first half and fared even worse around the rim, so many of their misses within feet of the hoop and a carom of going in; center Daniel Ochefu missed all five of his shots within the period. Still the game was mostly knotted until just before the half, when Anya stuffed an Ochefu shot into a jump-ball with three seconds before halftime, pounding his chest as the possession arrow indicated the ball would be N.C. State’s. A quick inbound got the ball to Lacey on the right wing, where he launched a three so pure teammate Desmond Lee began celebrating before it cleared the net, giving N.C. State a 32-28 lead at the break.
“That was a huge momentum shot,” said Turner. “It seemed like it gave us a little boost.”
As with Anya’s game-winner against LSU, the sources of the Wolfpack’s boosts continued to surprise. N.C. State’s general scoring dynamic is simple, with Lacey, Turner, and Anthony “Cat” Barber iso-ing the offense along. But against Villanova, forward Abdul-Malik Abu, he of the 6.2-point and 4.7-rebound averages, not only cleaned up around the rim but also scored on short jumpers and from the free throw line. At one point he grabbed two of his own misses amid a cluster of white jerseys, eventually drawing a foul.
Lennard Freeman, a 6’8” sophomore coaches describe as “Mr. Intangible,” finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds for his second double double of the season and first since November, matching Anya with a pair of blocks. All this in addition to the punishing post presence that helped hold Villanova to paltry 10-of-33 shooting inside the arc.
“All year long, they haven’t really gotten a whole lot of credit,” Turner of the team’s forwards. “Maybe when you look on the stat sheet, it may not be eye-glaring, what they do. But they are a major part of our team and we can’t win without them.’
With its shots not falling inside or out, Villanova seemed out of sorts, at times hurrying to launch the first shot it could muster before seeing it clank away. The Wolfpack held a steady lead between five and nine points as the second half neared its stretch run, with Barber alternately slicing through the lane and stepping back for jumpers, and Lacey coolly adding buckets of his own. Only when Villanova’s epitaph seemed written did its offense begin to come alive, with Darrun Hilliard II burying a pair of deep threes to cut the deficit to 67-65 with 40 seconds left. Lacey sailed the ensuing inbound too high for Desmond Lee, who could only master a pat of it with his right hand before it went out of bounds for a turnover.
Thus Villanova would have its chance to tie or claim the lead. With 15 seconds remaining, guard Dylan Ennis found himself free on the wing off a botched defensive switch. His look was among the cleanest of the Wildcats’ 28 three-point tries, but like 18 others, it would not fall. “It felt good when it left my hands, but it just didn’t drop,” Ennis said in his locker after the game, in a brief interruption of a thousand-mile stare. Added Hilliard, “I would put that shot in Dylan’s hands 100 more times.”
After the tournament’s wild opening day, it had been an unusually chalky 48 hours, the lone exception—No. 11 Dayton’s upset of Providence—coming well after midnight on the east coast. Gottfried, who similarly upset 30-1 Stanford in 2004 while at Alabama, was quick to point out how his team had been prepared to play spoiler by its rollercoaster run through the ACC, suggesting this should not have been all that surprising. And although he didn't mention it specifically, N.C. State did beat potential Sweet 16 opponent Louisville on the road on Feb. 14. But Lacey did not seem to want that confidence to spread too far beyond the locker room.
“We want people to keep sleeping on us,” Lacey said. “I hope people still pick us to lose the next game—and the game after that.” He sounded sure there would be one.