"I'm happy for our guys," a happy Herb Sendek said afterwards. "I'm fortunate to be around such a great group of young men, this is very special for them to win this game. We're going to share this with everyone, family, friends, everyone. This is a shared special moment."
After three straight devastating losses in the "Big Dance," senior Julius Hodge wasn't about to end his collegiate career with yet another. Eschewing a timeout, Hodge drove the length of the court and hit a running layup in traffic for a three-point play with 4.3 seconds remaining that gave NC State the winning points, 65-62.
"I saw him penetrating, and Rudy slip so I went over to help," UCONN's Charlie Villanueva said. "I really thought it was an offensive foul, and they would call a charge."
Hodge contested the ensuing three-point attempt by Connecticut's Marcus Williams at the buzzer, and when it fell short, it clinched the Wolfpack victory and its first berth in the "Sweet Sixteen" since 1989.
Delivering another stellar all-around game, Hodge paced the Pack with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, hitting all seven of his free-throw attempts.
"I didn't have any flashbacks," said Hodge. "That was the past – this is the present. Big time players have to step up and make big time plays and you saw that today."
He got support from Cameron Bennerman (15 points, three three-pointers), Ilian Evtimov (11 points before fouling out) and Andrew Brackman (10 points, 7-of-8 free throws). Engin Atsur struggled offensively with only six points, but did knock down a pair of three-pointers, grab four boards and post four steals. Jordan Collins, who sat out the first game of the NCAA Tournament, contributed two big shots from downtown off the bench.
Connecticut was led by Williams' career-high 22 points and Charlie Villanueva's 16 points and 12 rebounds.
NC State shot just 40.8 percent from the floor and was outrebounded, 29-21, but delivered 10 three-pointers on 19 attempts, limited the Huskies to 41.5 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from three-point land, and forced a dozen Connecticut turnovers.
Playing once again in the early game of the day, the Pack was frigid from the field to start, misfiring on 15 of its first 20 shots. However, State was able to stay in the game thanks to strong defense and a firm control over the contest's tempo. Four missed layups in the first 12 minutes didn't help the Wolfpack's cause, with the huge front line of the Huskies seemingly getting into the heads of NC State's shooters.
After the teams exchanged buckets in the early going, the Pack took a 9-8 lead when Collins drained a three-pointer. Connecticut went up 13-9, but a long-range shot by Bennerman sliced the lead back to one, 13-12. A conventional three-point play by former Georgia Tech forward Ed Nelson gave the Huskies its biggest advantage, 22-16, but Atsur countered with a three-pointer. Late threes from Collins and Bennerman each cut the margin to two, but UConn's Williams hit a floater just before the buzzer to give the Huskies a four-point lead, 29-25, at intermission.
After the break, Ilian Evtimov got things going for State with a three-pointer, sparking a 10-4 run that gave the Wolfpack a lead at 35-33 when Atsur dropped in another from long range. Connecticut tied it up again, but a driving layup by Bennerman and two free throws from Brackman put the Pack up, 39-35. Two free throws and a layup by Hodge boosted the NC State advantage to five, 43-38. Moments later, another Evtimov triple made the score 46-40, State.
Another three-pointer from Bennerman gave the Wolfpack an 11-point lead, 56-45, with 5:07 left. However, NC State got away from its offense in favor of running down the clock, and the Huskies capitalized with a 13-3 run to cut the lead to a single point, 59-58, with 1:34 remaining. After a Wolfpack timeout, Bennerman corralled a crucial offensive rebound off a Collins miss, and Atsur drove the lane and kicked out to Brackman, who drilled a pivotal three-pointer. The clutch shot by the rookie gave State a four-point margin, 62-58. Two free throws from Williams cut the lead to two, 62-60, with 1:01 left, and when Bennerman turned the ball over with 34.3 seconds to go, UConn had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Collins ripped down an errant Williams shot after a timeout, but had the ball stripped away, resulting in a Villanueva layup that tied the score at 62 and set up the dramatic final sequence.
"A wise man told me earlier this week that without a struggle, there is no progress," Bennerman said. "We had a struggle all season long. But that was the reason why the play against UCONN happened when he (Julius Hodge) was a freshman. But God is with us, we had our own problems and we made it through. This is definitely a big win and it feels great."
Next up, State will face the No. 6 seed Wisconsin Badgers next Friday night in Syracuse, New York. Wisconsin edged 11th-seeded Northern Iowa, 57-52, in the first round, and topped No. 14 seed Bucknell, 72-61.