By Peter Gleason
In the final analysis of Saturday night’s 71-68 N. C. State victory over Villanova, the question must be asked:
Why were the Cats a 9 1/2-point favorite over this disciplined, athletic team that had knocked of Duke, North Carolina and Notre Dame in the ACC, a conference that made the Big East seem like a high school league?
Villanova was a step too slow, it had no outside shot, little inside presence and no answers for the Wolfpack.
So, N. C. State is going to next weekend’s Eastern Regional in Syracuse and Villanova is going back to the Main Line for the spring and summer.
This Villanova group was the top seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament but never reached a Sweet 16. That was going to make this victory over eighth-seeded North Carolina State that much sweeter.
The Villanova dressing room was quite and the mood was funereal..
Daniel Ochefu sat on a chair, a white towel over a bowed head.
There were tears in Darrun Hilliard’s eyes as he made his way out of the dressing room for the walk to the interview room. Ryan Arcidiacono gave him a pat on the back.
Dylan Ennis (photo above) sat at his locker with grace and class, and faced the music about missing the 3 with 15 seconds left that would have given the Wildcats a lead. Ochefu by this time slumped back in his locker, the white towel covering a blank stare.
“The team had confidence in me to shoot it,” Ennis said. “I thought it was going in when it left my hands.”
“As soon as he let it go, I was like, ‘That’s good,’ ” Ryan Arcidiacono said.
They hurt for themselves. They hurt for seniors Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston too.
“This,” Jay Wright told them, “doesn’t define you as men.”
It was Hilliard (27 points), who had hit two 3-pointers, one with 1:25 left, another with 40 seconds left, who was supposed to take that last fateful shot. But N.C. State wouldn’t let him.
“They beat us at our own game,” Pinkston said.
They pride themselves at Villanova on being the hardest-playing team in America, if not the toughest, but N.C. State gave Villanova a taste of its own medicine.
The Wolfpack ferocity on defense disrupted the vaunted Villanova offense while their big men savaged the boards.
N.C. State, now 22-13, hit 33-3 Villanova in the mouth early and often, and never stopped hitting them.
You have to drive a stake through the Villanova heart to beat them, and when Hilliard drilled an NBA 3 inside the final minute, a 12-point N.C. State lead had become 67-65.
Then Trevor Lacey, in the teeth of a Villanova full court press, overthrew Desmond Lee at mid court.
But after Ennis, who had missed his first five 3s and nine of his previous 11 shots, misfired, Anthony Barber sank a pair of free throws with 14.6 seconds left, and another 3 from Hilliard with 1.7 seconds remaining was too little, too late.And Ennis walked off with his hands clasped forlornly over his head.
The Wildcats began to understood fully that they were in for a fight by the end of the first half.
Daniel Ochefu had been rejected underneath — for the second time — with 3.4 seconds left in the half by BeeJay Anya, who roared with delight toward the roaring Wolfpack cheering section.
Then Trevor Lacy lost Phil Booth when he pulled up for a right wing 3 that had the red-clad Wolfpack contingent exploding with a sound they might have heard in Raleigh, and left Wright storming off the court raging at one of the officials.
Villanova, which shot a season-high 63.2 percent in the second round, was shooting 28.6 percent in the third round. They would finish at 31.1 percent.
N.C. State was not Lafayette.
Hilliard, composed now at his locker as he tried to console his teammates, said he would not watch the Sweet 16. He never will have another chance to play in one.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Hilliard said.
Wright said jokingly that Eagles coach Chip Kelly couldn’t make a blockbuster move soon enough to offer Villanova cover.
“On the outside, we have to deal with, we haven’t got past the second round,” Wright said.
N.C. State goes to Syracuse.
Villanova goes home.