USF coach Stan Heath said he’d have a hard time sleeping after Tuesday night’s loss.
Sophomore Augustus Gilchrist had a potential game-winning shot blocked as time expired, and third-seeded USF dropped a heartbreaker to sixth-seeded N.C. State 58-57 in the first round of the NIT in front of 3,502 at the Sun Dome.
“It’s a hard way to lose, but we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves,” Heath said. “Not exactly the way I thought things would go, but I’m really proud of this group. They’ve come a long way.”
The Wolfpack got their go-ahead basket with just over eight seconds remaining. N.C. State’s Scott Wood gathered the inbounds pass near midcourt and found Richard Howell wide open for a layup.
“There was a lot going through my head,” Heath said. “I felt bad for my seniors and our team because I’d rather go down with a missed shot.”
USF still had a chance to win, but on its last possession, Jones drove nearly the length of the floor but passed on shooting and found senior guard Chris Howard open. Howard dished it to Gilchrist, who had his shot partially tipped by Howell.
“We were trying to get the ball to ‘Nique,’ which we did. I think he saw another defender coming at him, so he threw it to Chris,” Heath said. “Chris was probably looking to make a play or get it back to ‘Nique’ … it just didn’t go according to plan. You got kids who are making split-second decisions.”
Jones, who had missed his last 11 3-point attempts before hitting his first two Tuesday, had 14 of USF’s 26 points in the first half and finished with 24, but he was 8-of-15 from the free-throw line and missed all four 3-point attempts in the second half.
“I had good looks. I just didn’t knock them down,” said Jones, who had “no comment” after the game when asked if he would return for his senior season or enter the NBA draft. “That’s what it always comes down to. If I hit half of my shots, knock down my free throws, we would’ve won. Everything happens for a reason, you just have to move on.”
The Bulls (20-13) fed off the home crowd early, jumping out to an 11-4 lead, but N.C. State (20-15) ripped off a 10-0 run to go up 14-11. The Bulls took a 26-22 lead into halftime and held the Wolfpack to 32 percent shooting in the first half.
N.C. State had a 41-34 lead with 12:08 left in the second half before USF rallied to take a 47-45 lead with just more than seven minutes remaining. Howard said this was a tough pill to swallow, but it assured the future was bright for the Bulls.
“You can hang your hats, but the guys coming back have a lot to look forward to,” Howard said. “It’s tough, but, like coach said, I’m proud of the season we had and proud of my teammates and the way we fought.”