PITTSBURGH - Villanova's locker room late Saturday night was a miserable place.
In almost every stall sat a teenage or 20-something basketball player whose dream season had just gone up in smoke, with his face in his hands or a towel over his head. Ten minutes after a comeback bid to save their season fell three points short, the NCAA mandated they sit and answer media questions about what had gone wrong. About how frustrating it must have been for an elite shooting team to stumble to a 31 percent night from the field. About how hard it was to miss out on the Sweet 16 after the NCAA seeded them as the second-best team in the nation. Or about how agonizing it was that a season with so much unadulterated promise was so suddenly over.
The Wildcats had entered this NCAA Tournament as a trendy Not-Kentucky pick to win the national championship, backed by an eight-man rotation with zero weak links and a coach, Jay Wright, who'd led plenty of good teams but never had one quite like this one. But basketball is a fickle game, and sometimes the ball doesn't go in the hole, sometimes not even in the biggest games of all. So it was that this finely tuned machine's run was already over, with a 71-68 loss to North Carolina State in the tournament's Round of 32.
"It's too much to put into words, really. These guys mean the world to me," said forward Daniel Ochefu. "A day's not going to go past that I don't think about this team, just because of what we've done, what we did. These guys are my brothers."
Sometimes, basketball is stunningly simple. Villanova wasn't especially crisp in general, but don't overanalyze what went wrong. Don't pin it on Wright, the program's coach since 2001 who has, like so many others, known boundless tournament disappointment. Don't pin it on hype, which put the postseason spotlight on these Wildcats like never before. And definitely don't put it on the leadership, after senior Darrun Hilliard almost brought his team back from the abyss singlehandedly.
No, this was about variance. Luck, really.
The Wildcats shot 47 percent from the field this season, which was a top-40 mark in college basketball. If you're an analytical type, they entered Saturday with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage, which was 10th-best. Either way, Villanova's is a roster packed with sharpshooters. Against NC State, it all went to hell. They made 19 of their 61 shot attempts overall (31 percent) and 9 of 28 three-pointers (32 percent). Unless Wright deliberately instructed his cadre of snipers to change their shooting motion, or unless all of them just didn't want it bad enough, there isn't much left to say, so the Wildcats didn't. They made half the shots they usually do, and they lost by a triple. Basketball is a fickle beast, and sometimes an invisible lid parks itself on the rim. On Saturday, the Wildcats were the sport's victims.
"I think tonight, we just missed open shots," said guard Ryan Arcidiacono. "We missed a couple open layups, myself included, a couple shots we usually make, and we can't fault ourselves for it. It just wasn't falling for us. We practice those every single day."
Time and time again, Villanova found open looks with a chance to dent NC State's edge. Those opportunities were usually squandered, with none more painful than guard Dylan Ennis's go-ahead three-point try with 15 seconds left. The Wolfpack had just thrown the ball out of bounds, and the Wildcats trailed by just two. Ennis came off a screen and found an open patch of hardwood 22 feet from the basket. He's a perfectly fine 36 percent shooter from deep, and this shot was open after two defenders lost him on a pick.
"I thought it was good when it left my hands," Ennis said. And, clank.
A few minutes before that, Arcidiacono had swooped into the paint untouched and rose for a wholly uncontested floater. His form looked sturdy, and he's a pretty good shooter, too. Not a great one, but he nonetheless scored 54 two-point baskets this season. Few could have been more open than this chance. And, clank.
"If we make two or three more shots, we win this game, but that's just how it falls," Arcidiacono said. "We just didn't make any shots."
To cull through every instance of a good Villanova shooter missing an open shot on Saturday would take far longer than it did for the team's season to garishly end. And afterward, the Wildcats wept for a while, then sat up to answer questions through their tears. If they had shot the basketball as well as they comported themselves in the hardest sporting moment any of them will ever have, they'd have won by 20 points. But shot-making isn't so definitive, so the Wildcats were done.
Ochefu, the 64 percent shooting forward who scored four points on 1-of-7 shooting on this night, could never get going against an upstart Wolfpack frontcourt. Together, Ochefu, Arcidiacono and 51 percent shooter Josh Hart went 4 for 19.
Jenkins, the 42 percent shooter who went 0 for 3 on this night, said Villanova got the looks it wanted.
"We go into each and every game with the mindset to just make the right play. If you're open, catch and shoot, and that's what you do. If it's not open, you go to make a play for not only yourself, but your teammates. We did what we did. The shots," Jenkins said, "they just didn't fall for us today."
No one deserved a better fate more than Hilliard, the guard who scored 27 points and made 6 of 10 three-pointers -o seemingly the only Wildcat not snakebitten on this horrible night. His teammates were sad about a lot of things, but they were saddest of all that he and forward JayVaughn Pinkston, the team's two seniors, were all done.
"They showed us a lot," forward Kris Jenkins said. "Not just about basketball, but about life, with the way they carried themselves. They showed us a lot."
Hilliard hit a string of late three-pointers that carved down Villanova's second-half deficit from double digits to a single possession. He debuted for the Wildcats in 2011 and improved year over year, to the point where he was the second-best team in the country's best player this month. On the worst of shooting nights for Villanova, Hilliard's heroics were nearly enough to lug the team through.
"I thought we were going to win the game, point blank," Hilliard thought to himself as he chucked up late life-preserving shots, one after the other. "It just didn't happen, you know? We had multiple chances and opportunities, and we just missed out on them. That's all in God's hands. We played our butts off tonight, and I'm proud of that."