The key to the season may ultimately lie in the amazing turnaround the week prior to a road game at top 10 Syracuse. There was no evidence to suggest that the Pack could go into the Carrier Dome and win but they did, 84-68, securing NCSU's first road victory over a top ten opponent since 98.
The ability to bounce back after set backs was a trademark of this year's NCSU team. If it was coming back from half time deficits or from dreadful performances, this State team bounced back. That is a credit to the leadership provided by senior guards Anthony Grundy and Archie Miller as well as Sendek.
Times which State would fall apart or collapse in the past were replaced with times the Pack would come together and stage a rally. As it did in a season-turning 80-79 victory over Clemson, fighting off a 5 point deficit in the final minutes to secure the victory. Fighting back from deficits against Georgia Tech and UNC-Ch. Or keeping composure as opposing teams made a big run to close the gap.
Unselfishness was also a glowing characteristic of this year's Pack. Julius Hodge and Scooter Sherrill both accepted supporting roles in the backcourt allowing Anthony Grundy to lead the squad and have a first team All-ACC year. Instead of pouting, Sherrill worked hard on his defense in practice and contributed to the team when the need arose. Sherrill made an arguably season saving three against Clemson and provided 20 points off the bench in a rout of Virginia while Hodge was serving a one game suspension.
The Pack finished the season with a 9-7 record in the ACC, the best since 91. Doubts still lingered, however, regarding NCSU's return to the NCAAs. The doubters were silenced when the Pack put on an awe-inspiring shooting performance against the same Virginia Cavaliers they had beaten twice before. An exciting 86-82 win against #2 ranked Maryland gave State it's first win of the season against a top 5 opponent before going on and ultimately losing to Duke in the ACC title game on Selection Sunday.
That evening, NC State's name was in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 1991. The Pack, a seven seed, was going to Washington, DC to play Michigan State, a ten seed. When I saw the pairing announced I reviewed the last 10 years in my head. I thought about how far the program has come since the days of losing to Campbell and Florida Atlantic.
The Michigan State game was a microcosm of State's entire season. They shot poorly at the beginning of the game, kept competing, and staged a rally. We got a chance to see the future of the program when Anthony Grundy was on the bench with four fouls. Julius Hodge started leading, Illian Evtimov continued displaying his ability to hit the three pointer, and Scooter Sherrill finished on the fast break.
Ultimately the NCAA trip ended in disappointment, a 77-74 loss to UCONN, but that disappointment fades as one begins looking toward the future.
Following State basketball has taught me a lot of things: how to deal with disappointment, being a good loser (or at least trying to be), and the importance of never giving up.
It has also taught me to never brag about your team's exploit or demean another person's school. When tempted to do that think about how far we fell and the amount of flack received by State supporters over the last 10 years. Doesn't it take a bigger person to support a team even when it fails than it does to support one that succeeds?
Reflecting on the last 10 years I ask myself "Was it worth the wait?" and I can honestly say that I wouldn't have done it any other way.