PITTSBURGH — The rims seemed tight. So did Villanova.
The Wildcats missed so many shots — gimme layups, uncontested jumpers, airballed 3s — that it was no surprise the first thing to fall was their Final Four target.
No wonder it came to this: The ‘Cats were the first to go from a top seed to No. 1-and-done.
North Carolina State, a program that authored one of the early chapters on March shockers, can add another stunner to the list: The Wolfpack are back in the Sweet 16.
“We came out today with the feeling that everybody expected us to lose to a one seed,” said forward BeeJay Anya, “but we believe in ourselves and that we’re good enough to beat anybody in the country and we went down and did it.”
N.C. State attacked one of the top teams in the nation for 40 minutes, playing with a chest-thumping swagger that helped them stun Villanova 71-68 on Saturday night.
N.C. State guards Cat Barber and Desmond Lee shared a long embrace after the buzzer as their teammates danced around the court in celebration.
Barber turned to Lee, pounded his chest and yelled, “all heart!”
No, this wasn’t quite as meaningful as Jim Valvano’s mad dash looking for somebody — anybody — to hug after the Wolfpack won the 1983 national championship. But the Wolfpack (22-13) have designs on their own big March run and will move on to Syracuse, New York to play the winner of the Louisville-Northern Iowa game.
Lacey led them with 17 points, Barber had 13 and Malik-Adbul Abu had 13 points, 12 rebounds and absolutely destroyed the Wildcats inside.
The Wildcats (33-3) saw a 16-game winning streak end and have not reached the second weekend since 2009.
The Wildcats come up empty after storming their way to pair of Big East titles and a 41-point victory in the NCAA Tournament opener.
“I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again,” coach Jay Wright said. “We have to own that. But it’s not going to define us within our program. It’s going to define us outside of our program and we accept that.”
Dylan Ennis was nearly inconsolable, his arms crossed over his head in disbelief. Ennis missed a 3-pointer after an N.C. State turnover with 20 seconds left that would have put the Wildcats ahead.
Darrun Hilliard scored 27 points and gamely rallied the Wildcats in the final minutes. He hit 3-pointers that brought them to within four, within two with 41.1 seconds left and 69-68 with 1.2 seconds left.
Ralston Turner sealed the win with free throws and N.C. State was back in the Sweet 16 for only the third time since 1989 (2012, 2005). They hadn’t defeated a top seed since that memorable night in 1983 when they upset Houston.
Yet for the all the Wolfpack did right to keep the ‘Cats on their heels, they never went on that decisive run that would have ended a comeback threat. Barber lost the ball and N.C. State’s ninth turnover led to Josh Hart’s three-point play with 3:51 left.
The Wolfpack didn’t have to win with authority, though — they just had to win.
Desmond Lee’s three-point play stretched the lead back to seven and put them minutes away from the signature win under coach Mark Gottfried. Wins over Duke, North Carolina and Louisville in ACC play let them know they could knock off the elite.
“We respect Villanova, but we’ve seen good teams,” Gottfried said. “We’ve seen a lot of them in our conference. You see them about every night. So a league like that prepares you for games like tonight.”
Gottfried also has a knack for pulling off March upsets — he led eighth-seeded Alabama to a win over No. 1 Stanford in the second round of the 2004 tournament.
The Wildcats have one more March failure to tack on the list. They shot a season-high 63 percent in the tournament opener against Lafayette. Against the Wolfpack, they fired ‘em early in the shot clock, got stuffed at the rim and twice airballed 3-point attempts.
These were the top-seeded Big East champs?
In the first half, the Wildcats missed a whopping 20 of 28 field goals. Hart, the Big East tournament MVP, played just 4 minutes after he was whistled for two fast fouls.
“I don’t think missing those layups or those easy baskets really fazed us, it was just our decision making in taking them,” Hilliard said.