PITTSBURGH - The game never felt right from the start. Villanova was getting shots near the basket, the shots North Carolina State essentially was conceding, so concerned were they with the three-point line. If the Wildcats had not missed so many of those early, easy shots, they would have been playing with a working margin and their body language would not have given away their predicament.
Instead, they started rushing shots against a defense that could have been moved around with the extra pass that had been this 'Nova team's signature all season. Super sub Josh Hart got two fouls in 24 seconds. It was all just off.
And, just as the Wildcats seemed ready to gain control late in the first half, they gave up a four-point play, went too soon on their final possession and watched helplessly as a momentum-changing three, in the air as the buzzer sounded, splashed home.
The Wildcats had been playing from in front almost the entire season. Suddenly, they trailed by a dozen with 13 1/2 minutes left in a game that could end their season. They were shooting exactly 25 percent, a game after compiling the program's best percentage in a decade. Their eyes got bigger, the rim smaller.
It was a tribute to this team's heart and seniors Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston that Villanova played it to the finish and actually had a chance to lead with 15 seconds left when the Wolfpack completely blew a defensive assignment. The wide-open three by Dylan Ennis was long.
"I thought it was going in when it left my hands," Ennis said.
Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono thought the same.
"As soon as [Ennis] let it go, I said, 'That's good, we're going to take on our first lead, we're going to get a stop and we're going to win this game,' " he said.
You miss just two free throws and commit only five turnovers; you are going to win almost every time. This was the other time for a team whose ball movement was so lacking that it had only seven assists and shooting was so off that it took 61 shots and missed 42 of them. The missed inside shots led to a 34-14 disaster in lane points and a 13-rebound deficit.
These NCAA Tournament games are just different, especially when you are supposed to win and your opponent has talent, gains confidence with a few late shot-clock hoops, keeps long possessions alive with offensive rebounds and has guards quick enough to force your defense into uncomfortable rotations.
Arcidiacono, a basketball savant, was matter-of-fact in his analysis of what went wrong and why. It was complex and also simple.
"We just didn't make shots we have been making all season," he said.
We could analyze Villanova's 71-68 loss Saturday night at Consol Energy Center from now until next November, but the reality is that the Wildcats, so confident for so long, played too tentatively, sometimes short-arming shots and missing layups and dunks they never miss while also playing too quickly when patience would gotten the ball movement that tilts defenses out of position. They were better than 13-loss NC State all season. They were not better when they played.
The tournament is never about which team should win. It is about which team did win.
Villanova's offense really should have carved up the Wolfpack defense. The seasonlong numbers suggested that was the game's biggest mismatch. The Cats, however, scored just 1.06 points per possession, far from their normal 1.20.
"They forced us into not doing what we do well," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You've got to give the opponent credit sometimes."
The coach had to call too many timeouts too soon to steady his team. He kept searching for a combination that could make it right. If the game had been 41 minutes, Villanova probably wins. It also would not have reflected what went down. The Wolfpack played better.
Daniel Ochefu, Arcidiacono and Ennis combined to shoot 5-for-27. Hilliard and freshman Phil Booth were 9-for-14 from the three, the others 0-for-14. The seniors had 40, the rest 28.
His coach said Hilliard broke down in the locker room and again on the way to the interview room. Later, the senior faced the questions bravely.
"I'm burning up inside," Hilliard said. "I'm pretty good at hiding things. I'm pretty good at putting a smile on it for you guys because I like you guys. I'm pretty good at faking a smile."
The tournament is cruel. Villanova finishes 33-3 and feeling badly.
"It will be a long summer," Wright said.
Matchups really matter. If Villanova had played LSU, it would have forced way more than 11 turnovers, gotten far more easy run-out baskets and probably got into a much better offensive rhythm. But LSU gave away its game with NC State and the Wolfpack took full advantage of that gift, riding that finish all the way to Syracuse this weekend.
The Wildcats beat Xavier three times by a combined 43 points. Xavier got Georgia State in its second game and plays in the Sweet 16 as the only Big East team left. Villanova, which dominated the league, has to live with how it ended.
"It hurts right now," Pinkston said. "My season, my college career is done, but it was one helluva ride, though."
Indeed. After going 13-19 as freshmen, Pinkston and Hilliard finished 62-8 in their last two seasons, with two Big East regular-season titles, a Big East Tournament title and a 2-2 NCAA record.
"We didn't get it done, not from any lack of effort or commitment," Wright said of the ending. "We know questions are going to come next year . . . We know that it's a big story. That's part of being a big-time athlete. When we won big, we had big stories, too. So you got to take it . . . It's not easy, but it's part of life, though."
The end of this Villanova team's basketball life will always be 71-68. That will linger. So will 33-3.