The Old North State’s participation in college basketball’s postseason this year can be summed up with just one word.
That’s almost, as in Duke almost made it to the Final Four; UNC Greensboro and Davidson almost pulled off first round upsets against name-brand opponents; and Queens almost earned a spot in the Division II national championship game.
There were some triumphs along the way, most notably NC State’s run to the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA tournament. But for the most part, there was more sadness than madness this March for state teams.
After beating Iona, Rhode Island and Syracuse to begin the NCAA tournament, the second-seeded Blue Devils came one agonizing roll of a Grayson Allen floater off the rim from beating Kansas and winning the Midwest Regional on Sunday. Had the shot fallen, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team would have earned a trip to San Antonio to pursue its sixth national championship. Instead the game went into overtime, where a questionable fifth foul call on Wendell Carter Jr. and Duke’s inability to get the ball inside to fellow freshman big man Marvin Bagley III led to an 85-81 loss.
The Tar Heels’ defense of their 2016 national title ended early with a stunning second round 86-65 elimination at the hands of Texas A&M. The loss itself wasn’t all that big an upset. The Aggies, after all, were a top-10 team before a series of injuries and suspensions sent them into a midseason slump, and they enjoyed a decided advantage in height. The surprise was how and where UNC met its postseason demise. The Tar Heels shot just 6 of 31 from beyond the 3-point arc and trailed by as many as 24 in losing for the first time in an NCAA game played in Charlotte and only the second time in 36 tournament games in North Carolina.
The Wolfpack’s return to the NCAA tournament didn’t last long, ending in a first round 94-83 loss to Seton Hall in Wichita, Kan. The game followed a similar pattern to a late regular season defeat at Georgia Tech and State’s opening round disappointment at the ACC tournament in that coach Kevin Keatts’ team fell behind early, rallied in the second half but could never quite catch all the way up. Graduate transfer Allerik Freeman scored a career-high 36 points in the game, but he was virtually a one-man show, as the Wolfpack got just two points combined from fellow starters Omer Yurtseven and Braxton Beverly.
The 14th-seeded Spartans were near perfect for the first 39½ minutes of their first round West Region matchup with No. 4 Gonzaga, combining big offensive performances from Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy with a confounding 1-2-2 zone defense to stay close to the defending national runners-up. They took their first and only lead of the game at 64-62 on a putback by Jordy Kuiper with 1:46 remaining. The score was still tied with 37 seconds left before two bad offensive possessions, surrounded by a Gonzaga 3-pointer ended the upset bid with a 68-62 loss.
Coach Bob McKillop’s Wildcats, who are no strangers to knocking off bluebloods in the NCAA tournament, had the ultimate blueblood — Kentucky — on the ropes in their opening round East Region matchup in Boise, Idaho. Davidson held Kentucky without a 3-pointer for the entire game and trailed by only two, 61-59 with under three minutes remaining, before surrendering a 9-0 run that sent it to a 78-73 loss.
The Eagles fell in the “First Four” for the second straight year, missing all 14 of their 3-point attempts and shooting just 30.4 percent overall in a 64-46 loss to fellow HBCU school Texas Southern in Dayton, Ohio.
After falling short in their conference tournament and being relegated to the NIT, the Big South regular season champion Bulldogs were sent all the way across the country to play Southern Cal in a first round matchup. Despite the handicap, they put up one heck of a fight, almost pulling out the victory before falling 103-98 in double overtime.
Like UNCA, the Royals went two extra periods before losing in heartbreaking fashion, 105-99 to Northern State in the Division II national semifinals in Sioux Falls, S.D. Queens had chances to win the game at the end of both regulation and the first overtime, but couldn’t get shots to go down to finish the season with a school-record 32 wins — but two short of its championship goal.
Chris Clemons became the school’s all-time leading scorer in a first round win against Miami (Ohio) and Cory Gensler hit a dramatic game-winner to beat New Orleans and send the Camels into the College Basketball Invitational semifinals. But that’s where Campbell’s run ended, with a 65-62 loss at San Francisco.
Women’s NCAA Tournament
NC State put an exclamation point on a successful season by earning the right to host the first two rounds, then beating Elon and Maryland to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. Though the Wolfpack were eventually eliminated by Midwest Region top seed Mississippi State, it held its own in a 71-57 loss to finish at 26-9.
Duke also won a pair of games, against Belmont and Georgia, to reach the Sweet 16 in the East Region, where it ran into the juggernaut that is UConn in a 72-59 loss. Elon and NC A&T also made the tournament field, losing in the opening round.