DAYTON, Ohio – No raucous celebration to end this season. North Carolina State finished it with a dud.
The Wolfpack couldn't stop injured Khalif Wyatt, who scored 31 points despite a sore thumb and made six decisive free throws in the final 32 seconds Friday, leading Temple to a 76-72 victory in the second round of the East Regional.
The Wolfpack (24-11) returned four starters from a team that went to the round of 16 last season, but couldn't get past the opener this year. They never were able to get over slow starts — a slow start to their season, slow starts in their March games.
"The whole year became this struggle to reach higher than we were, and we just kept reaching and couldn't get there," coach Mark Gottfried said. "You just seem to always be falling short. And today's disappointing, no question."
Richard Howell had 14 points and 15 rebounds for N.C. State, which failed to fully take advantage of its advantage inside.
The Wolfpack are commemorating the 30-year anniversary of their national title under coach Jim Valvano. That's when Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg's off-target shot and slammed it home at the buzzer for a 54-52 win over Houston, sending Valvano on his joyous ramble around the court.
Given the expectations for this season, the ending was a huge disappointment.
"I wouldn't say it weighed on us, but when you come in the season with a target on your back like we had, people are going to give you their best shot," Howell said. "There were times when we came out and didn't give other teams our best shot."
Times like Friday.
The Wolfpack trailed most of the game but cut it to 74-72 on Lorenzo Brown's jumper with more than 2 seconds left. Wyatt was fouled on the inbounds play and finished it off. He went 6 for 6 from the line in the final 32 seconds even though he hurt his left thumb in the second half, making him grimace every time it got touched.
The Owls (24-9) are trying to shed their reputation as an easy-out team. They'd made the tournament each of the last five years, losing their opening game all but once. They haven't been to the round of 16 since 2001, when they reached the regional final.
They were having one of their best games of the season, holding a 17-point lead, before Wyatt got hurt, giving them a huge fright. The Atlantic 10's player of the year and top scorer got his thumb caught in a defender's jersey and had it twisted backward.
He took himself out of the game — a sign something was badly wrong — got it taped and returned to finish it off.
How bad was it?
"It's sore," he said, then realized that didn't fully capture the depth of the discomfort.
"It's sore," he added. "It's sore."
Every shot was an adventure, but he made enough to keep Temple around for more than one game. He hit his last two with 2.2 seconds to go, finishing 12 of 14 from the line overall.
The Owls were overshadowed on the front line, where N.C. State had the 6-foot-8 Howell, the ACC's leading rebounder. Temple's top inside threat, Anthony Lee, was limited in practice this week after getting tested for a concussion following the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Lee was replaced in the starting lineup Friday by 6-foot-9 Jake O'Brien, making his seventh start. O'Brien, who likes to shoot the 3, played the leading role in Temple's fast start. He finished with 18 points.
Still, the onus was on the 6-foot-4 Wyatt, who averages 19.8 points. Wyatt had three driving baskets — two of them off steals — and O'Brien hit a 3 for a 33-18 lead with 6:38 left in the half.
O'Brien hit yet another 3 with 18 seconds to go for a 38-22 lead at halftime. C.J. Leslie and the rest of the Wolfpack walked off the court stunned, the shock showing in their listless stride and blank faces.
After Wyatt hurt his hand in the second half, N.C. State started its best spurt of the game, getting the ball inside four times for baskets — two each by Howell and Brown — that cut it to 47-39 with 13:08 to go.
The Owls managed to maintain the cushion until the closing minutes. Scott Wood, the ACC's top 3-point shooter, missed his first four shots but hit back-to-back 3s that cut it to 63-60 with 3:08 left.
He missed another 3 with 1:11 to go, and Wyatt finished it off with those free throws.
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