ORLANDO, Fla. – T.J. Warren sat down behind a microphone and lowered his head into his arms. After a loss that can and will be described in so many ways, that single motion said everything.
"It's heartbreaking," Warren's coach, Mark Gottfried, said. "Our players are heartbroken."
Warren, a sophomore forward with an NBA future, remained with his head down throughout the press conference, lifting it up only once, to mumble an answer about free throws.
"Really tough overall," he said.
N.C. State had its second-round game in hand. The Wolfpack led by 16 points with eight minutes to go, and by 14 with just over five to go. It was over.
Then, incredibly, it wasn't. The Billikens kept fouling N.C. State players, and the N.C. State players kept missing free throws. N.C. State shot 54 percent from the line for the game, while the Billikens shot 50 percent from three-point range.
"It began to steamroll," Gottfried said of his team's free throw calamity. "All of a sudden it got contagious."
The crowd's bored silence turned to groans, and then to gasps, and then to rousing cheers. St. Louis climbed to within nine, then six, then three, then two.
Then the game was tied, and headed to overtime.
All Turner remembers thinking was, "We need to have a breakthrough. We need to make a breakthrough."
They couldn't. Fifth-seed St. Louis, led by Jordair Jett and Rob Loe, won by 3, 83-80. It was an unforgettable thrill ride for the winners. For the losers, it looked as it must have felt: like a curse.
Warren was a force throughout the game, and into the extra session, but whatever was happening to his teammates was also happening to him. He had 28 points in the game but he missed eight of 14 free throws. He ended up with a worse free throw percentage than shooting percentage.
"We just started missing free throws," said junior guard Ralston Turner. "A lot of uncharacteristic things."
The tiny N.C. State locker room was filled with motionless players after the game. Freshman guard Anthony Barber sat with his shirt off and his head cradled in his arms. Asked if he felt like speaking about the game, he didn't respond. Sophomore guard Tyler Lewis leaned slightly over in his folding chair, his eyes red and moist. He didn't want to speak either.
Warren did speak, very softly. He sat with his head cradled in his left hand, his long fingers tapping on his cheek. Cameras closed in. Lights flipped on and shone in his face. His eyes were still wet.
"It hurts," he said.
There was not much more to say.
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