ORLANDO, Fla. — The two star players, Matt Freije of Vanderbilt and Julius Hodge of North Carolina State, cried Sunday after their NCAA tournament second-round game ended.
All at once, it felt exhilarating for one and heartbreaking for the other. At midcourt, Freije lay on his back, shedding joyful tears. Hodge sat on the Wolfpack bench for long moments, then walked off the TD Waterhouse Centre court, his right hand covering his face as he left.
Vanderbilt had rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final three minutes to stun North Carolina State, 75-73.
"It's the most amazing feeling I've ever experienced," said Freije, a senior forward who scored 31 points, including 11 of Vanderbilt's last 19. "I really did not want today to be my last day of basketball in college. I don't think I've been so drained after a game."
The sixth-seeded Commodores (23-9) advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1993 and will play No. 2 -seeded Connecticut in the Phoenix Regional on Thursday.
Meanwhile, No. 3-seeded North Carolina State (21-10) must deal with its third agonizing NCAA tournament loss in three years. In 2002, the Wolfpack lost a second-round game to Connecticut by three points. Last year, it lost to California by two points in the first round.
But this loss likely hurt more than the others. Hodge, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, fouled out with 2:44 remaining and his team leading, 69-59.
"They played hard," Hodge said. "We played hard too. I can't believe how we lost this game. It's unbelievable."
The Vanderbilt comeback seemed to stun everyone -- not just Hodge. Twice in the final minutes, Freije was fouled attempting a three-pointer and Freije made all six of his foul shots.
But, for the Wolfpack, the worst was yet to come. With 1:51 to go, Marcus Melvin was whistled for a questionable intentional foul on Vanderbilt's Corey Smith as Smith drove to the basket on a fastbreak.
Smith made both free throws, and on the ensuing Vanderbilt possession, point guard Mario Moore made a three-pointer to cut the North Carolina State lead to 71-70.
"It was a huge momentum play," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said of the foul.
After the lead was exchanged twice, Smith put Vanderbilt ahead for good with 21.1 seconds left after he made a backdoor cut to the basket.