PITTSBURGH - This wasn't the way it was supposed to end.
And there isn't any good way to explain it.
Villanova already had set a program record by winning 33 games. Including its last 16, another program best. But the top-seeded Wildcats were beaten Saturday night at the Consol Energy Center by a North Carolina State team that had lost 13 times, 71-68, in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament's East Regional. A Wolfpack team that had won at Louisville and North Carolina and beaten Duke at home. Yet also had lost at Boston College (4-14 in the ACC) by 16, lost at Wake Forest (5-13) and won by a point at Georgia Tech (3-15).
If this were a one-time thing, maybe it would be a little easier to digest. But last March, a Wildcat team that set a program record for best regular-season (28-3) and was seeded second lost its second NCAA game to Connecticut, which went on to win the national title. That's something NC State's probably not doing. And in 2010, another second-seeded Villanova team had lost its second game, to St. Mary's - after needing overtime to get past Robert Morris in its opener.
Still, this was different. That 2010 team hadn't played well down the stretch. And last year's team had lost in the Big East quarterfinals. This group gave the program its first conference tourney title since 1995, when the Wildcats lost their NCAA opener as a 3 seed in triple OT. All but six of the current team's wins were by double digits.
None of that matters anymore.
"Each one's unique," said coach Jay Wright, who reached at least the Sweet 16 four times from 2005-09, with a trip to the Final Eight and another to the national semifinals, losing to the eventual champion each time. "This one's the most shocking. We were playing so well.
"If you're going to make a run, you've got to have one of those games where you have a tough matchup and find a way to get it done. We didn't."
Which means there will be lots of questions. They've only given the doubters more ammunition.
The Wildcats won 62 of their last 70. But they're 2-2 in the games people remember most. And 3-5 since 2009. The wins were against Robert Morris, Milwaukee and Lafayette, which they beat by 41 on Thursday. They shot a season-high 63 percent in that one. They shot 31 on Saturday, which basically matched a season low set in their 66-61, OT loss at Seton Hall on Jan. 3. They didn't lead against State in the second half. They trailed by as many as a dozen, and were still down seven with 2 minutes to go. They would get within one with 3 seconds remaining, but the team that deserved to win held on.
"They forced us into not doing what we do well," Wright said. "We shouldn't have been in that spot."
Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around? The only reason State was even playing was because LSU missed its last 18 shots (12 field goals, six free throws) 2 days earlier to lose at the buzzer.
The Big East, which was the second-best conference according to the RPI, sent six teams to the Madness. Just one is alive. That would be Xavier (23-13), which Villanova beat by 13, 12 and 18 (in the title game).
Who said any of this had to make sense?
"I mean, I think a week from now we're going to look back and say we had a helluva season," said senior Darrun Hilliard, who scored a game-high 27, including three three-pointers in the closing minute-and-a-half. "We're not going to be able to do that now. This loss hurts us. It ended earlier than we wanted."
The Wildcats, who had 13 fewer rebounds, were sent home even though they had just five turnovers and went 21-for-23 at the foul line. They also had just seven assists, from two guys. Hilliard went 6-for-10 from the arc, freshman Phil Booth 3-for-4. Everyone else was 0-for-14, including Dylan Ennis' 0-for-6 that included a wide-open look at 0:15 that would have put them ahead by one. Big East Sixth Man of the Year Josh Hart, the Most Outstanding Player in the conference tourney, got into early foul trouble and was never a factor in 21 minutes. He's a sophomore. Big man Daniel Ochefu, like Ennis a junior, shot 1-for-7 despite having a bunch of decent opportunities. He even missed a dunk.
Did we leave anything out? And they still almost came all the way back.
"We judge oursevles on Villanova basketball," said junior Ryan Arcidiacono, the co-Big East Player of the Year, who turned it over twice in the last 213 minutes he played but shot 2-for-8 on Saturday. "Three games this year, we just weren't able to do it. The other team was better that day . . . But that doesn't define our whole season. Yes, this hurts. It hurts everyone that we're not making it to the next weekend."
And that just doesn't go away. Not this time.
"It's part of sports," said Wright, who loses two starters but will add highly recruited point guard Jalen Brunson and figures to start next season ranked highly once more. "When you lay it all out there, you expect to win. When you do that, you're not prepared to lose.
"We don't control [outside] perspectives. Right now they're the correct perspectives. When you're a 12 [seed] and get to the Sweet 16 [as they did in 2008], it's a great run. When you're a 1 and get knocked out in the second round, it's not. People are going to talk about it. It's a big story. When we won big, we had big stories, too. So we've got to deal with this, too.
"You think about it the whole offseason. That's about when you get over it. We know people are going to talk about it next year. We deserve that. We can't argue with that. We've got to start all over again. And then try to get [here]. I would love to be in this position again. It takes a lot of hard work to get back in this position. That's what I'm going to think about in the offseason."
The good news is, he's not coaching at a place like Kentucky. That doesn't mean 'Nova Nation won't have a few things to say on the message boards.
"Our fans are crushed," Wright acknowledged. "Rightfully so. I still think they respect what we did this year. They want us to win a national championship. We want to win a national championship. We're not hiding anything here. People have opinions. We lost. You going to argue with them? The next challenge is, we have to answer the questions. You have to decide how you define yourself."
He's working in a pro town. There are bigger stories. Maybe he can get some help from one of those teams.
"I need [Chip Kelly] to make a move," Wright said, through a forced smile. "Or Ryan Howard can start talking. Something, please. Can the Flyers get any shot at the playoffs, get people excited?"
Practice starts again in 7 months.