ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Up double digits with eight minutes to go, North Carolina State seemed destined to prove it belonged in the NCAA tournament.
Playing their second game in three nights, the 12th-seeded Wolfpack faltered down the stretch of an 83-80 overtime loss to No. 5 seed St. Louis on Thursday night, hurting themselves with poor free throw shooting and uncharacteristic mistakes that brought their season to an abrupt end.
Even coach Mark Gottfried gave into the temptation to feel his team had the Billikens (27-6) in check before things unraveled.
“I did feel comfortable. I liked how we were playing. I liked how we played most of the game,” Gottfired said.
“Defensively we were really pretty good. Offensively we did a lot of things well against their pressure,” he added. “Even when you went to the foul line, I have great confidence that we’re going to step up and make foul shots.”
Rob Loe led Saint Louis (27-6) with 22 points and 15 rebounds, helping the Billikens avoid joining fellow No. 5 seeds Cincinnati and Oklahoma in falling to No. 12 seeds on Thursday.
Atlantic-10 Conference player of the year Jordair Jett overcame a slow start to score 18, doing most of his damage while the Billikens were escaping a 59-45 hole over the last five minutes of regulation.
“We didn’t want to end on that kind of note. We didn’t want to bow out of the tournament this early,” Loe said. “We’re here to win, and we’re here to put our mark on basketball. We just wanted to keep fighting.”
With better free throw shooting, Saint Louis would have won without having to work overtime against a team playing its second game in three nights.
N.C. State beat Xavier in an opening round game in Dayton, Ohio, and fatigue very well could have been a factor in the Wolfpack missing 17 attempts from the foul line.
“It’s heartbreaking. … Obviously we’re going to always feel like we let one slip away,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said.
“But you know, it’s one of those things. It’s hard to explain. We’re a good foul shooting team. We’ve been a good foul shooting team here recently, and it kind of steamrolled on us there from the foul line,” Gottfried added. “Got to give (Saint Louis) credit. Regardless of that they stepped up and made big shots. They played like a veteran team, and they still had to make some tough shots, which they did.”
T.J. Warren scored 28 points for N.C. State, but the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year made just six of his 14 free throw attempts. He missed one that could have tied it in the final minute of OT.
“I felt good, but it just didn’t fall for me,” Warren said.