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.
The N.C. State star fouled out with 27.9 seconds remaining, leaving Ralston Turner to try to rescue the Wolfpack with a desperation 3-point attempt that clanked off the rim as time expired.
"It was definitely tough," Turner said. "You know, at one point we had the lead, things were going our way, and it was about three minutes to go, we had a 10 point lead, and they started fouling. They just extended the game. It went from that to we just started missing a lot of free throws, a lot of uncharacteristic things started happening."
Saint Louis, which starts five seniors, advanced to the third round to play either fourth-seeded Louisville or No. 13 Manhattan in a Midwest Region matchup on Saturday.
The Billikens did it despite trailing by as many as 16 and going 12 of 26 from the foul line.
"They got us out of our game ... both defensively and offensively," Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. "Early in the game Rob hit a couple threes to get us off to a good start, but we started settling for jump shots I thought maybe the first eight minutes of the game, and then we just weren't getting back (defensively)."
Warren scored at least 20 for the 19th consecutive game. Turner, who finished with 16, hit a jumper and three free throws during a 19-7 spurt that helped the Wolfpack open their biggest lead of the night.
Saint Louis whittled away at its deficit, eventually tying the game at 70 on Jett's driving layup with 18.8 seconds remaining. But the senior failed to complete a three-point play that would have given the Billikens their first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
It went to overtime when point guard Tyler Lewis was unable to get the ball to Warren and missed an open 17-foot jumper at the buzzer.
In winning, Saint Louis avoided a recent trend that seen No. 5 seeds struggle against No. 12 seeds.
Earlier Thursday, No. 12 seed Harvard took down fifth-seeded Cincinnati in an East Region game played in Spokane, Wash. North Dakota State also knocked off No. 5 Oklahoma in OT as well.
There's been at least one No. 12 seed winning every season since 2008.
"Our players are heartbroken," Gottfried said. "But I'm proud of our team, I'm proud of the year we had."