N.C. State had blown so many free throws late in its round of 64 NCAA tournament matchup with Saint Louis on Thursday night that T.J. Warren just assumed his was going to miss too.
Before his attempt with 59.1 seconds left in overtime even reached the rim, Warren stepped into the paint to try to corral the rebound, a decision that resulted in a point-negating lane violation when the ball hung on the front iron and rolled in.
Missed chances at the foul line of every type imaginable by 12th-seeded N.C. State served as the catalyst for one of the head-spinning collapses in recent NCAA tournament history. Four players combined to sink only 9 of 20 free throws in the final 3:09, enabling fifth-seeded Saint Louis to erase a 14-point deficit in the final five minutes and escape with an 83-80 overtime victory.
Even for a tortured basketball program as accustomed to disappointment as N.C. State's, the heartache of Thursday's loss will linger for a while.
Almost from the outset, the Wolfpack appeared destined to go from the last at-large team in the field to the round of 32, building a nine-point first-half lead, extending it to 16 midway through the second half and pushing it back to 14 with 5:03 remaining. The ensuing collapse was nearly as stunning as Gonzaga surrendering the final 11 points to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16 or Arizona frittering away a 15-point lead in the final four minutes of an Elite Eight game against Illinois.
The first glimmer of hope didn't come for Saint Louis until Lennard Freeman and Jordan Vandenberg combined to miss three straight free throws with less than three minutes remaining and N.C. State ahead by eight. Even then, the threat of a Billikens comeback didn't appear serious until another minute later when Saint Louis center Rob Loe buried a 3-pointer, Desmond Lee turned the ball over in the front court and Grandy Glaze parlayed that into a layup that cut the deficit to three.
From there, the only question was whether Saint Louis could hit enough big shots to take advantage of N.C. State cracking under the March pressure.
Three missed free throws by Cat Barber and another by Warren in the final minute opened the door further for the Billikens. They pulled within two on Jake Barnett 3-pointer, within one on a Loe layup and tied the score on a Jordair Lett layup with 18 seconds remaining, actually blowing a chance to win in regulation when Jett missed the ensuing free throw.
Once Tyler Lewis' potential game-winning pull-up jump shot rimmed in and out as time expired in regulation, the momentum factor made it seem like a foregone conclusion the Billikens would find a way to win in overtime. Sure enough they did, thanks to a couple of big buckets by Loe that put Saint Louis ahead for good and an errant 3-pointer from Ralston Turner that could have tied it with three seconds left.
Why would a team that shot a respectable 66.4 percent from the foul line during the regular season go ice cold at the free throw strip at the worst possible time? Maybe it was fatigue from playing five games in eight days. Maybe it was the pressure of the March spotlight.
Whatever the reason, the Wolfpack will have seven months to ponder it.
When Thursday's game was finally over, when the double zeroes on the clock signaled that N.C. State's last chance to rescue itself had passed, the reaction from both teams was predictable.
Ecstatic Saint Louis players poured onto the floor in celebration of improbably prolonging their season at least two more days. Dejected N.C. State players trudged to the locker room wondering how a victory that seemed secure only minutes earlier could possibly have slipped away.
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