While the Carolina victories were sweet, the Pack was far from done. "No excuses" had become the motto for this team. It was to be a return to the NCAA or bust. The Pack finished the regular season with 20 wins for the first time since 1989. The chance to dance seemed imminent, but the Pack wanted to do more damage. March madness had begun.
NC State routed Virginia (for the third time) in the first round of ACC tournament play 92-72. The Pack would go on to shock the eventual national champions Maryland, in round 2, 86-82. NC State would be beaten by Duke in the finals, but the Wolfpack had long sowed up an at large bid for the NCAAs.
The opportunity to dance gave the Wolfpack it's first shot at a national championship in over a decade. The opening round against Michigan State found the Pack full of jitters. NC State scored a season low 18 points in the opening half. But as the adage goes, the only reason you play the first half is to get to the last half. When the whistle blew to start the second, the Pack lit up Michigan State with a 12-2 run to draw within three. However, the momentum that had turned was about to be in jeopardy as Anthony Grundy went to the bench early in the second half with four fouls. If the Houston game was where the spark was lit for NC State fans, it can also be said that the point when this team became Julius Hodge's was with 14:45 remaining in this first round game. Hodge sparked the Pack with lay-ups, three pointers and foul shots during the 10-plus minute stretch Grundy was on the bench. The Pack out scored Michigan State 28-13 in that decisive run of the game. NC State went on to win that first game, with Hodge scoring a team high 16 points.
The second round saw NC State matched up against Connecticut. The taller and more physical Huskie team was able to control most of the game although the Pack was able to keep it close. With time running out, Connecticut all but sealed the deal with a controversial play. The Wolfpack had pulled to within one (72-71) on a 3-pointer by Marcus Melvin with 47 seconds left. Connecticut ran the clock down on its next possession and it seemed Caron Butler (who scorched the Pack with 34 points) waited too long to get his 3-point attempt off. As the shot clock buzzer sounded, he shot and was hit ever so slightly on the forearm by Hodge. A delayed whistle was blown for a foul on Julius and Butler made all three free throws for a 75-71 lead with 11 seconds to play. A three by Ilian Evtimov and another pair of Butler free throws ended the scoring for both teams. A last second three point shot by Hodge banged off the front of the rim as NC State would be forced from the tournament with a 77-74 loss.
No one took the loss harder than Hodge, who laid on the floor face down to hide his tears after his missed shot. Grundy who had just played his last game in a NC State uniform was quick to pick Hodge up from the floor. Grundy would talk about the star freshman after the game. "I know how competitive he is and I'm just proud to play with a guy like that."
After Hodge had gathered his emotions he told the media of his unbelief in the foul that was called that gave Butler his three shots that helped to seal the Wolfpack's fate. "I couldn't believe there was a foul called. I was playing tough defense," he said in a quiet voice. "For a call like that to send us home and end our season, that's just hard to swallow." The return to the NCAA's was over, for now. But Hodge was already thinking about next year even before his tears had dried off the MCI floor, "This will definitely motivate me, motivate all of us. Mark my words: Next year, we will not be denied by anything."
Indeed, Hodge had his plans for the Pack way back in February of 2001. In an interview during his senior season in high school, he made the statement much to Wolfpackers delight, that he planned to lead NC State to a bunch of championships (ACC and NCAA). Although the past season was a success as compared to recent adventures on the court by the Pack, Hodge and his teammates are in no way satisfied with the Wolfpack's 23 wins, beating Maryland in the ACC tournament or with beating Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The NC State program has their eyes set on the Final Four. In a June of 2002 interview with Gregg Doyel from the Charlotte Observer, Hodge spoke about the next step for the Pack. "This season, I'm thinking high of my team, and we're not falling short. Anything less than the Final Four will be like Charles Barkley says -- uncivilized."
Don't miss NC State Basketball 2002-03 Preview Part 3. TSW will run it on Wednesday!