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NCAA TOURNAMENT RECAP - North Carolina State 66, LSU 65: No Makes and Heartbreak

In a season of brutal losses, the Tigers saved a nightmare for last.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

How do you even react to that?

We all saw it. It was like a horror movie you've watched over and over again, despite your most logical reasoning. You know the ending, but it still shocks you. But instead of the true anger by now, it's just a whole lot of numbness.

There's just no way to rationalize it, really. LSU missed its last 18 shots combined from the field and free-throw line. Dating back to the Auburn game, the Tigers haven't made a field goal in the final 19 combined minutes of regulation. It blew a 16-point lead, its 3rd double-digit second-half advantage squandered this season. They lost leads of 16, 13, 11, 8, 8, 8 and 7 this season. That all just feels pretty raw right now.

LSU was this close to an unquestioned success of a season. Sure, mumblings of the Tigers being talented enough to make a surprise Sweet 16 run persisted, but there was no expectation of that with No. 1 seed Villanova awaiting. After a gift of a nine slot following a maddening season, beating North Carolina State wasn't just on the table. It was a very real necessity for the overall psyche of this program. Keeping up the blowout or pulling out a tight one would have been a first and most crucial mental step over the underachieving hill that LSU hoops remains stuck on. Instead, it looked like the new normal for a program that has earned stability without the requisite postseason success or consistent play to show for it.

Let's get to some competing and overlapping points. This was first and foremost, in this isolated incident, a player's loss. The botched free throws, the lack of aggression on offense and the continued failure to box out late starts with the guys on the court. I hate laying blame on college athletes and I certainly bear no grudges against those Tigers despite the crushing defeat. I especially feel for Jordan Mickey. He's taken some criticism the last month and not all of it unearned but he's an LSU great regardless of whether he stays or goes pro. He's blocked 100+ shots in consecutive seasons plus, I mean, he still produced a line of 12 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks on Thursday night. Yet he'll be the first to tell you the missed free throws will shine through most. Though the raw emotion and devastation he showed after this game might paradoxically be a motivation to return.

All that being said, that's taking this game at face value, as if it happened in a vacuum. The absolute pattern that plagued LSU all year found its way into this game. One great — even elite — half. Unreal athleticism in transition. A 6-man team capable of playing with anybody. On the flip side, a total 20-minute no-show. Missed shots down the stretch. Inexplicable offensive possessions. An inability to finish off a foe that was on the mat. You saw the beauty, the flaws, the fury and the madness all wrapped into one perfectly apt game to tie the season up in an apropos bow. And guess what? When a game on that stage looks so familiar to the dog days of January and February for two years running now, it's no longer some concocted narrative. There were coaching shortcomings, even some severe ones, that never corrected fixable problems and it exposed LSU one last time.

This is part of the tournament, though, and Thursday only highlighted how regular this kind of heartbreak is. Hell, LSU might not have even had the worst collapse of the day. That probably belongs to No. 3 seed Baylor and its disappearing 10-point lead in the final 2 minutes. These are the growing pains of a program and I will acknowledge that just reaching the tournament sets the stage for a bright future.

Yet I believe it's our own casual observer Chef Billy who has consistently said he just wants to see improvement, which he defines rather subjectively but simply as a better brand of basketball. Some baseline of consistency and trust in the team. That, ultimately, leads to the results, the achievements that don't totally seem within reach yet but shouldn't be out of the question for this program on a relatively regular basis. Think Sweet 16s. A top 2 SEC finish. An SEC Tournament final. A top 25 ranking.

The concrete achievements improved this year, and that is not up for debate. Making the NCAA Tournament, finishing 4th in the SEC, beating West Virginia on the road and putting two players on the All-SEC team represents accomplishment. Yet I think it's hard to argue the actual product on the court this year was of considerable and reliable quality, matched the ability of the talent on the roster and was noticeably better than last year. Again, results here do not equal the basketball itself.

And the loss in Pittsburgh to a similarly maddening Wolfpack squad only shined a light on that. For a program that has come so far from back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010/2011, there's still a long way to go. 5-star reinforcements are on the way but the fatalistic identity of LSU basketball should still concern fans. Just like this loss, that feeling will linger.