NC State keeps season alive with dramatic finish
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sophomore Shayla Fields was on the line, and the hopes of NC State were there with her. The pressure was stomach-churning intense.AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainKay Yow and the Wolfpack are headed to their first Sweet 16 in six seasons.
And you could tell she felt it. Fields missed two free throws with 19.8 seconds left in regulation Tuesday night. Unless you were bleeding Baylor green and gold, your heart had to lurch a little bit.
How would this young player ever get over it if Baylor scored and won this second-round NCAA Tournament game by two? You wondered if she'd spend her life thinking, "I missed the free throws that ended Coach Yow's career."
Of course, no one wants to be thinking anything like that. No one wants to believe that when this tournament ends for NC State, Kay Yow's coaching career will end. Because maybe there will be a miracle.
But frankly, these last two months already have been a miracle -- an unbelievable, unforgettable, amazing gift. Most people as sick as Yow are lying in hospital beds. Somehow, she's still putting on her red jacket and helping her Wolfpack win games.
And as it turned out, Fields didn't have to face a terrible memory. Baylor didn't score, and the game that lived up to predictions as one of the best of this entire tournament went into overtime.
There, Fields found hoops redemption. She hit a 3-pointer -- her only one of the game -- with 49 seconds left. It gave the Wolfpack a six-point edge, and NC State held on for a 78-72 victory that could have been officially sponsored by Kleenex, there were so many tears afterward.
Joyful ones, of course, from the Wolfpack, who now face UConn in the Sweet 16 in Fresno. Sad ones for Baylor, which was trying to make its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
For the final five minutes of regulation and the entire overtime, there was more drama than any of us writers here could adequately put into words. It was one very special basketball game.
"It's a shame somebody had to lose," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "I've got a locker room full of young people who are as dejected as I've ever seen them. And that's bad, because they lost. But it's good because the majority of them will have other opportunities in the future.
"They were up against a lot of intangibles, guys, and we all know that. They were up against seniors, against Coach Yow's situation. For them to fight and claw and compete -- it hurts. For those players that are returning, I hope they don't forget how this feels. For the two seniors we lose, I hug their necks and thank them for what they meant to our program."
One of those seniors was Bernice Mosby, who played just one year for Baylor after transferring from Florida but made quite an impact. Mosby had found out on Monday that her family's home back in Florida had burned down on Sunday. No one was injured, but you can imagine the emotions Mosby has been feeling.
She still came out and scored a game-high 26 points and had six rebounds against NC State.
"Bernice laid it out on the line tonight; she was special on the floor," Mulkey said. "She has had a rough day or two with losing everything back home. For a young lady to take that out of her mind for two hours and perform like she did -- it hurts right now for her. She does have a quite a future ahead of her in pro basketball, though."
Mosby suffered leg cramps at the end of the game and had to be helped off the court. The rest of the Baylor players, though, hugged Yow as they went through the postgame handshake line.
"It's a respect thing more than anything," Mulkey said. "It's not that they know her on a personal level, it's that they know what she's meant to this game that they all love."
Nobody knows that more than this group of Wolfpack players, who have won 12 of 14 games since Yow returned in January from her leave to treat -- as best as possible -- her stage-4 cancer.
Khadijah Whittington had to leave the game for a while with an upset stomach that she acknowledged might have been brought on by nerves as much as anything. Ashley Key's calf muscle cramped up badly during the overtime, and she had to be helped back to the locker room.
Both players, though, recovered from their respective ailments and were on the floor in the final minutes.
"This is it," Whittington said, "so I knew I had to suck it up. I went to the training room and I had to get cooled off, and I returned. I felt sick, but it went away."
Key said, "I got juiced down with electrolytes and I just wanted to come back out and help however I could. I knew that somewhere I would probably be needed. They were able to fix me up, and I was able to come back out."
As for Fields' huge 3-pointer, it was a play called for her. Whittington set a screen that got her open, and Marquetta Dickens got her the ball.
"It was nothing but net," Fields said afterward, smiling.
Her free throws near the end of regulation, however, had been nothing but rim.
"I felt like I let my team down at the end of the second half," Fields said. "I just wanted to come out with confidence and stay in the game, keep my head in the game. My coaches and teammates kept me up. They said that I was going to get another chance, and I did."
Life, of course, doesn't always provide second chances. Yow is in her third battle with cancer, and she knows how precious every extra second is. Whittington, who scored a career-high 23 points and had 11 rebounds Tuesday, understands that lesson very well -- and not just because of her experience with Yow.
Whittington's father, Monsoor Mohammed, has ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. There is no cure yet. ALS patients lose all muscle control -- inevitably, horribly, fatally.
Her father is still living back home in Virginia, but he can't move and he has lost virtually all of his capacity to communicate. Whittington said he is still able to watch her games.
"I've been dealing with my father being sick for the three years that I've been here," said Whittington, a junior from Roanoke, Va. "I know it's in the Lord's hands. Seeing how Coach Yow handled her father's passing and her sickness helps me. I know whatever may happen, my father will be OK.
"He's still hanging in there. I deal with it. I pray a lot. I have a lot of people supporting me. Coach Yow knows when I'm feeling bad, and she lets me go home and see my father. I have those times when I feel like I just can't take it anymore, but I get through it."
And now, for her dad, for Coach Yow, for her teammates, for the Wolfpack Nation and for herself, too, Whittington leads NC State into the Sweet 16.
"I've never been to Fresno," she said. "I'm so excited about going."
So is her coach.
"If you would have seen Coach Yow after the game -- she looked like a little kid in a candy store," Key said. "Just being able to see that huge smile on her face and knowing it's because of the way we played and how hard we played -- the hustle and the heart and everything she talks about that we put into that game. It's huge for us to go to (California) and keep this winning streak going."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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