Herb Sendek told the crowd at the ESA for the 2001 Red-White game that NC State fans would "fall in love" with this team. The statement may have been heard but the words were hollow as they reverberated over the sound system to a crowd that seemed more interested in getting back to tailgating for a soon to be played football game. The coach standing in the middle of the court would just have to excuse the skeptical crowd he now faced. After all, Sendek had stepped up to the microphone previously to try to calm the NCSU faithful. Wolfpack optimism would always turn into pessimism when season after season were full of disappointments, injuries and just plain old bad luck (some would say a curse). "Fall in love" was not what NC State fans wanted to hear. What they desired were the words "NC State would return to the NCAAs".
The Pack's last Big Dance appearance was a second round lost to Oklahoma State in Les Robinson's 1991 debut season. During the eleven year drought, Pack fans saw rival Duke dominate the nineties with five Final Four appearances, winning it three times (1991, 1992, 2001). UNC was winning too. The Tarheels played in six Final Fours, winning the title in 1993. Meanwhile, NC State struggled to just finish with a winning season. The period saw a combined record of 144 wins and 160 losses. The conference showing was even more bleak. The Wolfpack in that stretch managed only 52 wins while churning out 114 losses. All this from a once proud NC State basketball program.
Indeed, "Fall in love" were empty words on that October day. After all, NC State was coming off yet another setback season (13-15 and 5-11). One fan yelled a more simple goal for Sendek. "Just beat Carolina!" Forget about the NCAAs. Forget about the loving mood coach found himself in. "Just beat Carolina!" NC State people could start with that. The idea of falling in love was just too far beyond the dreams for most in the crowd that day. However, the prophetic vision of a coach standing alone on the ESA court and the voice of a frustrated fan would soon be dreams come true.
The 2001-02 season had several pivotal games. After a brisk 5-0 start, the young Wolfpack had it's first road test in the ACC/Big Ten match-up. The trip was not kind to the Pack, where Ohio State soundly defeated the NC State 64-50. Julius Hodge was quick to not blame the youth of the team on the loss. "I'm not going to say that we lost this game because we're a young team. I credit Ohio State because they came ready to play" Hodge said in the post game interviews. But the fact was, NC State had five freshmen and one sophomore that were in the process of finding their way with the help of outstanding senior leadership in Archie Miller and Anthony Grundy. Hodge's refusal to acknowledge their youth showed the "no excuse attitude" that the team would carry throughout the season.
The UMass game in Raleigh was a chance to get the Wolfpack's flashy new offense back on track after a disappointing showing in Columbus. However, the shooting woes which had typified NC State in recent years continued to be on exhibition as the Wolfpack went down for a second straight game, 69-62. The Pack was manhandled in the paint by the experienced front court of the Minutemen. While some of the doubters began to resurface, most NC State fans were still searching for a reason to love this edition of the Pack. Miller refused to let the young team fall into the routine of the past. "If you take any time off and put your head between your knees, especially with the talent we have and the talent we're playing, you're going to get beat. And then you're going to lose confidence and it's going to steam roll." Miller said. "Our older guys, especially me, have to pick the younger guys up and pull up through it. We're going to get better and concentrate on the next game."
If you had to point to a game that a spark was ignited between the fans and the team, you need to look no further than the away game against the Houston Cougars. Wolfpack fans were taken back to memories of 1983. Memories of Thurl, Derrick, Sydney and Jimmy V. The sudden recall of a long passed national championship seemed to galvanize the supporters of the program. This was their chance to rally around the 2001-02 version of Wolfpack basketball. Now, the only thing needed was a win.
The Pack and the Cougars were in a nip and tuck game throughout the second half, with no team being able to exert domination over the other. It appeared that, like in '83, it would come down to a last second shot. After calling two time-outs, Sendek drew up the final play as NC State found themselves two down. Against a formable Houston press, the thought was to put the ball in Grundy's hands. Anthony raced into the front court before running into a Houston trap causing the NCSU senior to fall to the floor. The ball came loose and an Australian scrum ensued. Pack freshman Levi Watkins batted the ball to Marcus Melvin who shot a desperation three from 25 feet at the buzzer. Melvin was able to do what Derrick Whittenburg could not do in 1983, he hit the game winner! The final score for the game was 67-66. However, the real score was that NC State fans had started falling in love, just as Coach had promised.
Don't miss Part 2 NC State Basketball 2002-03 Preview. TSW will run it on Tuesday!