This is March Madness! Saint Louis and North Carolina State brought the madness to the NCAA Tournament, which is why it is the best event in sports. This was one of the craziest opening round games in recent memory.
Saint Louis’ "never say die" attitude was on display on Thursday. The Bills, using one of NC State’s strategies when they won their NCAA championship under head coach Jim Valvano, fouled their way back into this game. The Bills forced NC State to convert foul shots, but in a historical twist, the Wolfpack did not make their free throws. After being down 16 points in the second half, The Billikens slowly stormed their way back to tie the game on a Jordair Jett layup with 18 seconds left in the second half. SLU, without leading scorer Dwayne Evans, completed the amazing comeback in overtime.
"We just didn't want to give up. We didn't want to end on that kind of note," said SLU forward Rob Loe. "We didn't want to bow out of the tournament this early. We wanted to win. We're here to win, and we're here to put our mark on basketball. We just wanted to keep fighting."
NC State had one final chance with a Ralston Turner 3-pointer, but it clanked off the front iron as the Billikens won the game, 83-80. This game was nail-biting throughout the final five minutes of the second half and in overtime.
The Billikens got off to a hot start thanks to Loe hitting three 3-pointers. They had a 9-6 lead with 15:47 left in the first half. The Wolfpack then claimed a lead until the final 18 seconds of the second half.
Led by T.J. Warren, the Wolfpack slowly built a double-digit lead in the first half. They hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer that demoralized the Bills with each blow. It seemed like the Wolfpack offense was clicking on all cylinders in the first half and was going to end the Bills season.
There was a slight glimmer of hope for the Billikens just before halftime. They went on a 7-0 run thanks to key buckets by Jake Barnett and Dwayne Evans. This cut NC State’s lead to 4 points going into halftime. However, the Wolfpack opened the second half on a hot start making a possible SLU comeback nearly impossible.
After a Warren layup, NC State was up 16 points with a 55-39 lead with 8:13 left in the second half. It seemed like SLU’s magical season was over, but then the slow comeback began.
Taking a page from North Carolina State’s own historical playbook, they began to foul with 5 minutes left in the second half to force NC State to foul line. The Wolfpack failed to convert their free throws down the stretch and that put the Bills in this position to get back into the game. This strategy paid off as NC State missed five straight free throws at one point. The missed free throws cut the deficit down to 61-55 with 2:11 to play in the second half.
Barnett made a 3-pointer and Loe made a huge layup having the Bills down 1 point with 35 seconds left in the second half. After a Warren free throw, the stage was set of Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and SLU’s closer Jordair Jett.
Jett had struggled in the first half only scoring 1 point. In the second half, Jett went off. He scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, but none bigger in his career than this layup. Jett slashed past his defender and to the basket. Warren attempted to stop Jett, but he was too late as Jett made the bucket and was fouled to tie the game at 70.
Jett went to the line and missed his free throw attempt, giving the Wolfpack another opportunity to win the game. However, NC State was in shock after blowing a 16 point lead. Wolfpack guard Tyler Lewis shot the ball, but it rimmed out sending the game into overtime.
In the extra session, Rob Loe took the game over. With the game tied at 72, he made a powerful baseline drive to the basket for a huge slam dunk to give the Bills a 2 point lead. He then made a layup forcing NC State to call a timeout. Loe ended the overtime period with 6 points, but the Wolfpack were not out of this game.
NC State’s Desmond Lee made a tough layup with 43 seconds left in overtime. SLU guard Austin McBroom fumbled the ball and it ended up in the hands of T.J. Warren who made a layup and got fouled. Warren had an opportunity to tie the game at 81, but missed his subsequent free throw attempt. The Bills clung to a 1 point lead.
Tanner Lancona and Mike McCall Jr. hit a free throw each to extend the Bills lead to 3 points, but NC State had one final chance. They missed their 3-point attempt allowing the Bills to claim victory.
"Well, obviously we're very excited about the win," said SLU Head Coach Jim Crews. "The NCAA, so many teams that are really good, it's hard to win a game. It comes to a crashing halt to everybody except for the national champion, and North Carolina State, I've got all the respect for Mark and the program he's got. Over the years I've known Mark and everything, and they're certainly a tough challenge."
SLU had its challenges tonight, especially at the free throw line, but at the end of the day, it is survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament. This victory is one of the best in program history, rivaling the "Miracle in Memphis" when SLU won the 2000 Conference USA Tournament after finishing seventh in league play that year.
So enjoy Billikens fans, this is a night that will not be forgotten.