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Rewind: NC State’s 2015 Sweet Sixteen Run

“Clock goes to two, Anya with the turnaround, and IT GOES!”

LSU v North Carolina State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Since there are no actual sports to talk about, I crowdsourced an article via twitter. There were a lot of good ideas, but this one from @JamesCurle seemed like the most fun.

On far more than just one occasion, the Wolfpack had been left for dead during the 2014-15 season. The season had apparently reached an endpoint, at least effectively, so many times that when the lights actually went out, it still didn’t seem over. This is the Pack’s 2015 Sweet Sixteen run, a weird mess of a season that featured multiple buzzer-beaters, huge upsets, baffling losses, season-long underachievement that was ultimately consigned to oblivion, and a team that died twice before anyone could actually kill it.

The run started well before the tournament

NC State was operating under what could be considered normal procedure for Mark Gottfried throughout most of the season. The Pack put another massively talented team on the floor. By the end of the season, it probably had the best backcourt combo in the ACC and one of the five best in the country. The chance to be a Sweet 16 or better caliber team was always there, but the record never reflected such a potential.

This was mirrored in results like a 79-63 loss at Boston College, or a 16-point home loss to Cincinnati, or losing to Wofford. State had a double-digit victory over Duke, something it almost always has in its back pocket these days, but almost nothing else to put on a tournament resume and be proud of. By the back half of the conference schedule, it had really started to flounder.

After a 4-2 start to conference play, State dropped five of six, the only win a one point victory over a ghastly Georgia Tech team, and the final loss seemingly denoting the end of the road to the postseason. State had outplayed #2 Virginia for most of the night but looked doomed down five with less than a minute to go. Trevor Lacey provided one last gasp though, knocking down a deep three and then seemingly tying the game on a dribble drive, only to have his layup bounce off the rim with seven seconds left.

Lacey blamed himself for the loss, which, barring a sudden streak of road victories over top-15 teams, probably ended tournament hopes. The star guard specifically mentioned the final sequence, lamenting his ability to make the three but not the layup. The statement, while about that specific sequence, served better as a metaphor for the entire team and season.

This was proven true by NC State, 14-11 overall, 5-7 in the ACC, and staring up at the bubble, reeling off three straight wins that were bookended by road victories over #9 Louisville and #15 North Carolina. Not a soul had an iota of confidence that State could win either of those games. But NC State had a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what was expected of it. Three days later the Pack lost by 16 to 9-18 Boston College.

Despite that, State notched six of its last eight in the win column, which was enough to pull itself from out of contention back to the bubble and eventually above it, securing an 8-seed. While this group certainly possessed the talent of much more than an 8-seed, what happened next made every state fan forget that forever.

Anya’s moment

State no-showed in the first half of its opening tournament game against LSU. It was thoroughly and completely ran over, trailing 40-26 after twenty minutes. It proceeded to make up no ground at all for over half of the second frame, still trailing by 14 with nine minutes to go. It must have been at this point that the Pack realized everyone was expecting it to lose this game, so it was time to win.

NC State surged back into the game via a 10-0 run, 7 of which were scored by an unlikely contributor: sophomore forward Kyle Washington. Despite his versatility and well-established offensive game, Washington was hardly ever used anymore. He had played 14 minutes combined in the three previous games. It’s true that the lanky forward could be a bit of black hole on offense, but that’s just fine if he makes everything. Washington would hit three straight including a straightaway three-pointer that cut the game to a mere four points.

BeeJay Anya, another unlikely offensive contributor, scored his first points of the game, a tip-in with 44 seconds to go, to cut the lead to 65-64. LSU had totally flat-lined offensively. The Tigers had scored five total points and missed every single shot from the field since the 10:25 mark, nearly a quarter of the game without a bucket. It had missed six consecutive free throws. The door had been left wide open for the Pack, but it still trailed by one.

LSU’s final offensive possession featured yet another missed shot, just like every other possession over the final 10 minutes. Trevor Lacey then probably saved the game by maintaining his dribble while he fell down with a rebound. Gottfried called timeout.

You knew what was coming next, or at least what was supposed to. So did LSU. So did everyone in the building. Trevor Lacey was, statistically, the most effective player in the country in isolation situations. It was going to be an isolation set for Trevor Lacey. It was, and it failed. Lacey got caught in the air trying to force a jumpshot and ended up having to dump the ball to an unsuspecting BeeJay Anya with four seconds left fourteen feet from the basket. It was a disaster. No chance now, right? Right? RIGHT?

Anya scored four points in the basketball game. All four came in the final 45 seconds. His hook shot fell with 0.1 on the clock. NC State won 66-65.

That shot is burned into every State fan’s memory because sports, at their core, are less about the accomplishments and more about the individual moments. Nobody cares too much about the result of an 8-9 tournament game from 2015, but if you’re State fan who watched this, you’ll never forget it. You cared, and as it turns out, it would end up mattering a great deal to a basketball power from Philadelphia as well.

Speed bump ahead

Sometime prior to NC State’s subsequent bout with top-seeded Villanova, a certain Wildcat blogger made it very clear that his team was #notscared. See, NC State was the kind of 8-seed that you did not want to see. It had the capability of playing at a much higher level, and most people knew this from its wins over Duke, UNC, and Louisville. A team like that matching up with one like Villanova, which was being followed by a dark cloud of early tournament exits, would spark some conversation about an upset. Nova folks were not having it though.

But NC State was just better. It dominated the interior, getting double-doubles from both Abdul Malik-Abu and Lennard Freeman. The two players had totaled three career doubles-doubles between them prior to that night.

State didn’t even shoot that well, but a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first half by Trevor Lacey made it abundantly clear that State was here to be a lot more than a mild annoyance. The Pack then put the screws to Villanova with a 13-5 run to start the second, which was capped by another big inside play from Abu. State kept the top seed at an arm’s length for most of the second half.

Villanova rallied late behind a barrage of three-pointers that made State fans groan, but it missed the two most important ones down the stretch: the one that would have given it the lead and the one that would have cut the deficit to one with 12 seconds left. State held on.

There was never any doubt that NC State could play with a team like this. The result didn’t even seem that shocking, especially given Villanova’s postseason facepalms in recent years, but it sure was sweet. It also produced the most iconic image of the whole tournament.

The postgame also featured another memorable moment: Cat Barber calling out Barack Obama for picking against NC State in his bracket, which was pretty funny.

Live by the Cardinal, die by the Cardinal

So after the season appearing over following the loss to Virginia, NC State pulled itself off the mat and went and beat Louisville to spark a turnaround that would lead it to the Sweet Sixteen. Now entering the second weekend with the biggest upset of the tournament, who would be waiting for the Pack but that very same Louisville team. This time though, it really would be the end of the road for State. There is a sort of cold irony to exiting the tournament at the hands of the same team that revived your hopes of being there at all, and the Pack certainly had its chances to avoid that poetic ending.

State led for a good portion of the game, but a 9-0 run by the Cardinals mid-way through the second opened a 47-41 lead for the opposition. Again, it was Kyle Washington coming in and sparking the offense, scoring five points on four possessions and cutting the lead to one. He scored 11 points in nine minutes but exited the game with around ten minutes remaining with his third foul. He would never return, the reason for which was never explained. Louisville’s late 17-9 burst sealed the fate of the Pack. The run was over.

It definitely felt like State could have beaten Louisville, but nobody will ultimately remember that, because, again, sports are more about the moments than the statistics, and this run had a lot of great moments. BeeJay Anya will always be the guy who made the buzzer-beater against LSU. Trevor Lacey will always be the guy who hit big shots against top-seeded Villanova. Piccolo girl was on Jimmy Fallon. Even if it was just two games long, the way the whole thing played out was special and will not soon be forgotten by Wolfpack fans anywhere.