ORLANDO, Fla. – In a timeout huddle 82 seconds away from the end of the season, Saint Louis coach Jim Crews called for the Diamond. He looked at forward Grandy Glaze. “Grandy, you’re on the ball,” Glaze remembered Crews saying. Then Crews looked at guard Jordair Jett. “Jordair,” Crews said, “trap it.”
Wait. Crews ordered his team to run a full-court press? Do the Billikens even practice a full-court press? “Nooooooooooooo,” Glaze said Thursday night after he set down the postgame pizza he used to wash down an 83-80 overtime win. Then he laughed.
Glaze laughed because the fifth-seeded Billikens ran that press that they never practice down five to No. 12 seed NC State. And, wonder of wonders, it worked. Glaze stole the inbound and dropped in a layup. Saint Louis had taken a deficit that once climbed as high as 16 and sliced it to three with 1:18 remaining. “Desperate times,” Glaze said, “call for desperate measures.” A few minutes later, Crews sat in a press conference. He was asked how much of the press was drawn up on the fly. “All of it,” he said. “All of it was improvised.”
Suddenly, NC State looked desperate. The Wolfpack had led by 14 with five minutes remaining, but that lead withered as NC State players took the phrase “charity stripe” far too literally. Every time a member of the Wolfpack clanked a free throw, a Billiken got his wings. NC State missed 10 of 20 free throw attempts in the final five minutes of regulation. The last, a miss by star T.J. Warren, gave the Billikens the ball down two with 29 seconds remaining. Jett drove the lane and scored, getting fouled by Warren in the process. But the free throw whammy vexed both teams. Jett’s attempt with 19 seconds remaining rimmed out. Then NC State guard Tyler Lewis missed a 15-foot jumper, and the Billikens had five more minutes to prove they could stay alive.
By then, the momentum was all theirs. But because this is March, and because it can be quite maddening, it wasn’t over. After two free throws by 6-foot-11 New Zealand native Rob Loe gave Saint Louis an 81-76 lead, NC State answered with a Desmond Lee layup followed by a Warren layup. That Warren layup also included a foul by Saint Louis forward Tanner Lacona, which gave the ACC Player of the Year a chance to tie the game at the line with 38 seconds remaining in overtime. As the Wolfpack’s 17th missed free throw of the night fell off the rim, the Billikens didn’t celebrate. First, they needed Warren to foul out on a questionable call 11 seconds later. Then, they needed one of two free throws – two of two was asking far too much in this game – from Mike McCall Jr. and a missed three-pointer by Ralston Turner just before the buzzer.
Then the Billikens could relax. Then they could go into their locker room and chow down on barbecued chicken – Glaze destroyed a thigh before he attacked that pizza – and laugh about a game that so easily could have ended with them pulling their jerseys over their heads to hide their tears. Saint Louis starts five seniors. They’ve been through nearly every conceivable basketball situation together. They’ve mourned the death of their coach (Rick Majerus) together. When they looked at the scoreboard and saw themselves down 16 with eight minutes remaining, they swore they wouldn’t go out like this. “This is our last chance to do this,” McCall said later. They would not lose five of their last six and then part ways. So they chipped away at the lead and hoped the Wolfpack would miss enough free throws to keep them on the court. NC State obliged, and it was Warren (28 points, eight rebounds) who buried his face on a press conference table as coach Mark Gottfried and teammate Ralston Turner tried to explain exactly what the hell had just happened. “You know, pressure is what you make it,” Turner said. “I wouldn't say the pressure made us miss the free throws. I don’t really have an answer for you as to why we missed them.”
With eight minutes to go, the story had already written itself. NC State, the bubbliest of bubble teams, had barely made the tournament, and had to beat Xavier in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday just to reach Orlando. Now the Wolfpack were about to prove Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s admonition correct. On March 15, after beating NC State in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, Krzyzewski had offered a bold comparison between the ACC and the Atlantic 10. “I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it. Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six [NCAA Tournament] teams in there,” Krzyzewski said. “Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through. That’s the thing. I don’t know if there's a quantitative way of measuring the degree of difficulty that there is in playing in this conference or like a Big 12. You’ve got to be on all the time.”
NC State was for most of the game on Thursday. The Wolfpack manhandled the Billikens for 35 minutes. Despite the seeds, it didn’t feel like an upset. NC State had ended the season by winning four of five. Saint Louis had ended the season by losing four of five. It made sense to everyone in the Amway Center except the Billikens. They wouldn’t give up. They wouldn’t leave, because they weren’t done playing together.
As a result, we get to have guys named Grandy Glaze and Jordair Jett in our lives for at least two more days. Who knows what might have happened had Crews played it safe and run only the defenses that the Billikens had practiced? A moment of desperation produced a moment of brilliance, and Saint Louis is still here.
“Sometimes when you dance,” Glaze said, “you’ve got to improvise.”
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