PITTSBURGH—There were not supposed to be any surprises on North Carolina State’s final possession against LSU. After coach Mark Gottfried huddled with his team during a timeout with 14 seconds left and his Wolfpack trailing by a point, everybody in the arena expected what followed: the ball finding the hands of Trevor Lacey, the team’s go-to playmaking guard, for a bit of isolated hero ball to make or break the team’s season. But as Tigers guard Tim Quarterman granted him little room to breathe and less to shoot, Lacey dumped the ball to forward BeeJay Anya, the most trigger-averse player on the team, in hopes of creating some space and receiving a quick pass back for the final shot. Lacey called for the ball, but the righthanded Anya took a dribble into the lane against LSU forward Jordan Mickey, turned, and let loose a lefty jump hook.
“He had a chance,” Anya explained after the game, smiling wryly. “It was my turn to shoot it.”
It did not happen quickly—the ball rolled off the left iron, then backboard, then back onto the iron for a dramatic pause—but it fell just the same, and there was the biggest surprise of all: after trailing by 16 in the second half, the Wolfpack were swarming one another near midcourt, jumping in jubilation to celebrate a 66-65 win.
It had been a different scene at halftime, with the Tigers up 40-26 on the strength of rebounding dominance and the emphatic dunks of their springy, likely-NBA-bound sophomore forwards, Mickey and Jarell Martin.
“Coach, he came in here mad,” said N.C. State forward Lennard Freeman, and Gottfried was not alone, as Anya too chided his teammates for the softness that had left them 20 minutes from their season’s end.
“We knew we were gonna have to come out in the second half as a new team,” Freeman said.
That they did. As the Tigers wilted, those put-back slams no longer presenting themselves, their jumpers no longer banking in, the Wolfpack came alive. Though the iron remained unkind toward Lacey and Ralston Turner, who finished a combined 8-of-29 from the floor, sparks came elsewhere. Anthony “Cat” Barber, the team’s emergent freshman point guard, led NC State with a craft 17 points, while reserve forward Kyle Washington keyed three straight scores - his own left-handed put-back dunk and three-pointer, then a slick feed slammed by Abdul-Malik Abu - that cut a nine-point deficit to four with 4:28 to play.
“I didn’t wanna go home,” Washington said after. “We didn’t come here to be in the round of 64. We have high expectations.”
But no one’s offense bloomed bigger or later than the 6’ 9”, 295-pound Anya, who did not score a point until the game’s final minute. At that point, LSU clung to a three-point lead after Mickey missed four free throws in two trips to the line, continuing the collapse that fed the Wolfpack’s comeback. Turner tried a corner three with 45 seconds left that missed, only for Anya to tip in the rebound to cut the lead to one. After a Mickey miss on the other end came the Lacey isolation that became Anya’s unexpected game-winner, a rolling bucket he claimed he knew was true upon release.
“I joke around with my teammates all the time, if you wanna win, give me the ball,” Anya said. “Today it actually worked out. Now they’ll never hear the end of it.”
A reporter suggested they might actually listen to Anya and pass it to him again. “Eh, probably not,” Anya said, perhaps hoping for another surprise.