Kevin Keatts made the same mistake as every protagonist at the end of a franchise horror movie. The villain may look dead, but there's always a sequel in development.
The N.C. State coach declared the phenomenon known – in polite quarters – as N.C. State Stuff, among other things, dead and banished after Saturday's home win over Louisville in the wake of everything the Wolfpack had accomplished this season.
“We've been able to stuff the stuff,” Keatts said then, and did Wednesday's 91-87 loss to Boston College ever prove him wrong.
After a furious late comeback wiped out a dismal first-half N.C. State performance, with Al Freeman and Sam Hunt and Omer Yurtseven shooting the Wolfpack back into the game after being down by as many as 17, the Wolfpack had momentum and the ball with 13.6 seconds to go, down two with a chance to win on the final shot.
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Freeman stood in front of the N.C. State bench to inbound the basketball. The plan was for Freeman to get the ball back and read a high ball screen – which almost surely would have meant a step-back Freeman 3-point attempt for the win.
Would he have made it? “100 percent,” Freeman said. But he never got the chance.
Jerome Robinson – the same Robinson from Garner and Broughton High who had a game-high 26 points against the hometown school that didn't recruit him – deflected Freeman's inbounds pass. Ky Bowman – the same Bowman from Havelock who was a North Carolina football recruit but not an in-state basketball recruit – was fouled and made both free throws to put Boston College up four with 11 seconds to go.
Markell Johnson then raced down the court for a layup but called timeout immediately after making it. N.C. State had none left.
“I was just caught up in the moment, trying to win, get a quick timeout, stop the game,” Johnson said. “That was it. I knew in my head we didn't have any. I was just so caught up in the game.”
It was the most costly technical foul against N.C. State in the ACC tournament since referee Larry Rose called a technical on a Wolfpack manager for taking too long to wipe up the floor after a timeout during a 2004 semifinal loss to Maryland.
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That technical remains one of the touchstones of N.C. State Stuff, along with the Matt Freije and Anton Gill incidents in the NCAA tournament. After Wednesday, like any good horror-movie monster, it's … alive.
But that doesn't mean it still can't be killed. Again.
Keatts was right that the experience of this season has given this group of N.C. State players new confidence and new belief, and the collective insecurity of an entire fan base, honed through brutal experience, doesn't necessarily have to hang over this team in critical moments like a swinging blade the way it seemed to Wednesday.
Lennard Freeman, a fifth-year senior with a sense of perspective on these things – he played in the game when Gill, another Raleigh native, almost single-handedly saw Louisville past the Wolfpack in 2015, then transferred only days later – has seen the change.
“This was uncharacteristic of us, what we did, the inbound and the timeout and everything,” Lennard Freeman said. “But I'm not going to say it's N.C. State Stuff. We're a completely different team. Even though you might have seen it in the past couple years, I don't think this moment defines us. This isn't us. Early in the year, I used to think in clutch moments, anything could happen. Or I'd be iffy about us winning a game. Now, late in the season, we're finishing now.
“So don't get used to the old N.C. State Stuff. Today, that's basketball. It was two plays. It happens.”
VIDEO: NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about NC State 'stuff,' his team, expectations and getting 21 victories after the Wolfpack's victory over Louisville at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Saturday, March 3, 2018.
N.C. State should still be safely in the NCAA tournament despite this loss, given the depth of its resume otherwise. The first phase of its postseason is over. The second begins – should begin, anyway – next week, another chance to prove this team has moved beyond its history, even if it seemed to weigh heavy Wednesday.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock