COLUMBUS, Ohio - It’s been a long time since North Carolina State was mentioned in the same breath with the elite programs in the nation - let alone its own state.
Now, a new coach and a new attitude have the Wolfpack faithful harkening back to the glory days of David Thompson and Jim Valvano.
Lorenzo Brown hit three free throws in the final 10.6 seconds and North Carolina State returned to the Round of 16 with a 66-63 upset of third-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
“When I went to Alabama as the head coach at the age of 33, John Wooden told me one time, he said, ‘Coach, don’t give them too much too fast. They might start expecting that every year,’ ’’ first-year Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said with a grin.
Then, with impeccable timing, he added: “Well, we failed in that category already.’’
The Wolfpack (24-12) will play Kansas Friday in St. Louis.
A lowly 11th seed, they had to survive a furious comeback by the Hoyas (24-9) that ended when Jason Clark’s hurried 3-point attempt from the right wing was off the mark at the buzzer.
“We pushed the ball up the court, tried to get a last shot,’’ Clark said, his eyes brimming with tears. “I felt like it had a chance, but it didn’t.’’
It’s a return to the big stage for a program that has been lost in the rather large shadows cast by neighboring powers Duke and North Carolina. The Wolfpack won national titles in 1974 with Thompson and in 1983 on Lorenzo Charles’s last-second putback of Dereck Whittenburg’s wild shot, leading to Coach Valvano’s memorable celebration.
But maybe the new Wolfpack have turned a corner.
“We always talk about how we have such a great history at N.C. State,’’ Gottfried said. “But it’s also time to build some new history.’’
C.J. Williams, Scott Wood, and C.J. Leslie each had 14 points, and Brown added 12 for the Wolfpack, who earned their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2005.
The Wolfpack’s defense spurred a 12-0 first-half run that included 7 points by Williams and helped turn an 8-point deficit into a 3-point halftime lead.
They pushed the advantage to 11 in the second half before Georgetown (24-9), despite deep foul trouble for center and top assist man Henry Sims, came clawing back.
The Hoyas, riding the shooting of Hollis Thompson, who had 23 points, drew to 63-61 before freshman Otto Porter missed a 15-foot jumper under pressure with 14 seconds left.
Brown, a 74 percent shooter at the line, made two foul shots with 10.6 seconds left for a 65-61 lead. Clark, who finished with 10 points, then went the length of the court for a layup before Brown was fouled again with 4.6 seconds left. He hit the first but missed the second, and the Hoyas raced downcourt for a potential tying three.
They got a great look, with Clark, defended by Williams, stopping and getting off a rushed shot that was wide of the mark.
“I was just praying it wasn’t going in,’’ Williams said. And it didn’t.
It set off a wild celebration among the Wolfpack players. Three teammates hefted Brown to their shoulders and carried him across the floor, while guard Alex Johnson popped his jersey and yelled to the roaring North Carolina State faithful, “We back, baby! We’re going to the Sweet 16!’’
It was another bitter disappointment for Georgetown, also a legendary program trying to reclaim a glowing legacy. The Hoyas were knocked out in their first game in each of the previous two NCAA Tournaments, and the players said they had finally shed the stigma of those defeats with a 74-59 victory over Belmont on Friday.
They also had put aside a strange year that began with the team attacked by the crowd and opposing players in an exhibition game in China.
“This team, in spite of whatever downs we’ve had and losses like today, has been a really special group,’’ coach John Thompson III said.
This continues to be a special year for the Wolfpack, a team that no one thought would be dancing this late in the year.
Well, almost no one.
“One of the first things I said to Coach Gottfried when I met him, I said, ‘I don’t want this to be a rebuilding year. I don’t want to just play to get better. I think we’ve got the talent and the pieces that we could be a dominant team,’ ’’ Wood said.
Brown couldn’t wipe the smile off his face after the game.
“You never know what to expect in this tournament,’’ he said, sounding far more sage than a sophomore should. “A lot of great teams went down a couple of days ago. And we’re just out here playing our best. And Coach is a believer in us and we believe in ourselves.’’