Court Vision: Inconsistent Wolfpack take a resume-killing loss to Clemson

NC State has taken punches quite well this season -- but not in game that it had to have at home against a team it should have beaten.

RALEIGH, N.C. — NC State (13-9, 4-5) took a huge setback to its NCAA Tournament hopes by dropping a 68-57 decision to Clemson (12-8, 4-4) at home. NC State has now lost three in a row and four of the last five after knocking off No. 4 Duke.

But the first three losses in this stretch came against top-25 teams. Clemson is the first team NC State has lost to this calendar year that isn’t currently ranked. It’s going to be costly.

1. NC State still having its customary bad half, and this one was too much to overcome

This trend of one good half, one bad half has been going on more or less all season, but it was particularly bad in this game as NC State had its worst half of basketball in quite some time, trailing Clemson 36-16 and shooting 23.1 percent from the floor while turning it over seven times. Oh, and letting Clemson — a normally bad shooting team — shot 43.8 percent from the floor (50 percent from 3).

"I don’t know that you can play a worse half of basketball than we played in the first half," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said.

It’s certainly hard to imagine.

NC State led 6-2 early, as Gottfried said, and it felt like NC State would either cruise or win a tight one — but no one could have seen what was coming.

A 25-2 Clemson run over a little over nine minutes put them up by 19 with 7:44 to go, and left a stunned crowd at PNC Arena silenced. It was a crowd that had just seen its Wolfpack go up by 18 points on No. 8 Notre Dame, only to squander that lead and lose in overtime. This, however, was much more unbelievable.

"We’re playing pretty good in the first 2-3 minutes. Then we go on a dry spell. We can’t score and we can’t score and we turn it over and now we’re not playing very good. The bottom fell out a little bit tonight," Gottfried said. "We started to get down on ourselves. You could see it in guys’ faces. They became real unsure. Obviously, we can’t do that in this league. That’s something we all know."

It started to translate into NC State’s defense, too. The Wolfpack’s second-half defense was risk-reward — it forced 10 second-half Clemson turnovers and turned them into 15 points — but they gave up 52.4 percent shooting when Clemson could break pressure. Clemson, a slow-tempo team, finished with 22 fast-break points as a result.

But it was the first half offense — and defense — that had gotten them into the hole to begin with. As layups, free throws and short jumpers fell off the side of the rim, the frustration mounted.

"Shots weren’t falling. We were a little frustrated with some easy shots that were rolling in and out, missing free throws. I think we let that, as a team, affect our defense," NC State guard Trevor Lacey said. "We were frustrated and we didn’t defend them.

"We have to be a team that’s going to defend regardless, because we’re not going to score every possession. We may go on some scoring droughts, but our defense has to be good enough to keep our margin a little smaller than 20. If we go on a scoring drought, it’ll be easier to come back from 5-10 than it would be from 20."

And indeed, NC State trailed by as many as 23 points in the first half. Gottfried saw the blank looks on his teams’ faces in the huddle and knew it wasn’t good. But the halftime was useful for regathering them, and his team looked much more like itself in the second half, shooting just 32.4 percent but 5 of 11 from 3-point range and turning it over just four times. Oh, and outscoring Clemson 41-32.

The hole was too big, but the first-half creation of said hole was enough to kind of disturb their head coach, because it wasn’t something he’d seen from his team this year.

"If you think of our team most nights, whether we’ve been on the road or at home, there’s been an answer every time there seems like there’s been a tough period," Gottfried said. "Then tonight, we got in the first half and we kind of got hit in the mouth a little bit and then all of a sudden, we’re not scoring the ball and we’ve turned it over a couple of times. We just began to really struggle."

The split between halves, though, is becoming a disturbing trend. In the last five games, NC State’s "good" half has been the first half twice and it’s been the second half/overtime three times. In its "good" half, it’s outscored its opponent — again, three of which were top-25 teams — 211-167 and shot 49.7 percent from the field (42.7 percent allowed). In the "bad" half, though, NC State has been outscored 135-191 and shot 32.3 percent from the field (allowing 46.8 percent).

It seems as if when it rains, it pours for the Wolfpack. And in this game, it was no different — only worse, and worse to the point where it couldn’t be overcome.

It’s still something that they don’t want to keep doing.

"We just always seem to want to play from behind. We’ve just got to put it all together and have that same mentality as when we’re down from the jump," Lacey said. "It’s been pretty consistent with us. We just have to learn how to put it together. We practice. We go over our offense, defense. It’s just that we don’t carry it over to the game. You just really can’t say anything because I don’t know what to say."

2. If NC State had a margin for error when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, it is now gone

NC State’s best win this season is undoubtedly over No. 4 Duke. But since that game, NC State has lost four of five. It’s been right there at the end of two games against two teams currently in the top 13 (North Carolina and Notre Dame, both at home) and it lost a close one at Miami.

All of those teams are good teams. None of those losses are bad losses.

But this was NC State’s first game in a stretch where it could take a bad loss, and boy, did it.

"At times, what we’ve shown is pretty brilliant at times. We’ve seen that here and there. But what they have to learn is every night and then within every night, what it takes to win at this level, to be a champion, to be an NCAA Tournament team, to win at this level," Gottfried said.

NC State’s next two games are at Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest, two teams that have already played themselves out of NCAA Tournament at-large bids. Road games in the ACC are always tricky to play, but there’s no more room to drop a tricky game or two — unless NC State is going to get a few more marquee wins, and even then it’s pushing it.

Gottfried has never shied away from being honest with his team about where they stand, NCAA-Tournament wise. Lacey has been around long enough to know that this was a bad, potentially crippling loss.

NC State has taken these kinds of losses under Gottfried before, though, and it’s all turned out fine.

This one is going to be harder to bounce back from, though. But not impossible. Still, the inconsistency of this team from half to half, from game to game, and the holes it digs for itself both in games and now, in the course of a season have often been maddening.

"As a team, we’re not going to clock out and say ‘oh, we’re not making the Tournament’ or ‘we’re not making the postseason’. But we’re digging ourselves a bigger hole," Lacey said. "It’s no fun digging a hole and trying to get out of it. Luckily, we still have time. We still have good teams left on the schedule, the ACC Tournament. I feel like we’re going to get it.

"We’re…we compete with everybody. Every top team that’s come in here, we’ve been in every game."

3. The ACC is proving night in and night out lately that anything can happen

NC State, for the most part, had been one of the more consistent teams in ACC play — beat the teams that it was better than while losing to the elite teams in the conference, albeit by narrow margins (with the exception of the Duke win).

This result against Clemson, a team that has been all over the place in league play — get throttled at home by North Carolina, lose a close one at Louisville, dominate Pitt on the road, lose to Virginia by double digits, beat Syracuse by 13 points at home and then lose to a bad Florida State team at home in the next game.

They’re not the only perplexing team. Wake Forest pushed Duke and Louisville at home and lost an overtime thriller at Syracuse, and have gone 0-3 since with a double-digit home loss to North Carolina and close (too close) road losses at Clemson and Florida State, teams they should be better than. In theory.

And on and on it goes.

"In this league, there’s 18 phenomenal contests," Gottfried said. "You look at (No. 23) Miami, and they lost by 30 early in the year to Eastern Kentucky. Yet they go on the road and beat Duke and Syracuse, then they turn around and get beat I guess tonight by (Georgia) Tech by 20. I could go through every team in the league."

There’s a pretty clearcut top tier of teams in the league right now — Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville, in some order. Where everyone else falls will be up to their own choosing. But the middle tier is there for the taking, if anyone wants to.

Gottfried even experienced some of that weirdness as the head coach at Alabama.

"I can remember back, I had a team at Alabama that played a ton of young guys, and we could do like this year. We could beat Kentucky when they were ranked or beat Tennessee when they were like fifth in the country, and then we would turn around and lose to Ole Miss or lose to somebody," Gottfried said. "It’s a mystery. Sometimes that happens with young guys.

"But tonight, I think the lesson for our team to learn is you’ve got to play through it. We’ve done that a number of times this year. Even when we’ve struggled offensively, we seem to have been able to fight through it. But tonight, boy, we got down in the first half and really it just seemed like we lost our zip."

27-11: The first scoring line was Ralston Turner and Lacey. The second is every other guard on NC State’s roster who played. Lacey and Turner had five assists to three turnovers as well while the other guards (four, in total) combined for three assists and two turnovers.

24.5: That’s what NC State shot inside of the 3-point line, and it didn’t improve all that much from half to half (5 of 23 in the first, 7 of 26 in the second)

"It was emotional. We just wanted to go out there and just play with heart. I’m proud of my team. I feel like we went out there and we showed that we have fight left. A lot of teams could’ve just tucked it in and said we’ve got another game later in the week, but we really wanted this one. But that’s how the game goes." — Abdul-Malik Abu on halftime

"It’s just one of those days. Some days, you’re hot. Some days, you’re not." — Abu on missed layups

"Nobody outside of our locker room or our Wolfpack nation is going to feel sorry for us. They understand it. I tell them that all the time. This is a man’s league. For college athletics, this is a grown man’s league. You’d better bring your ‘a’ game every night." — Gottfried