Fast start gives Virginia easy win over NC State

NC State's Ralston Turner had 10 points, tied for the team high.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Pop. Pop. Pop. Hissssssssssssss. 

It was the sound of air escaping from long red-and-white balloons dispersed throughout the student section after they’d been popped. The deflated balloons were discarded in the seating area, and as they settled limply on the ground or an empty seat, they seemed an apt metaphor for what was happening on the court. 

Those sounds filled the air throughout the final 10 minutes of NC State’s 76-45 loss to Virginia, a loss that dropped NC State to 11-5 overall and 1-2 in ACC play with two straight road games coming up. 

But the long red-and-white balloons that met their demise one after the other after the other, the pops becoming more and more emphatic, as the game’s outcome became inevitable never really had that long to live. 

NC State scored on two of its first four possessions, moving the ball patiently against the infamous pack line defense of Virginia (12-4, 3-0 ACC). It was 6-4 Cavaliers in the first 2-and-a-half minutes, and it looked like it was going to be a pretty good ACC game.

Of course, the Virginia-NC State game tipped off after a pretty full day of ACC hoops, one that included No. 16 Duke losing by 13 at Clemson and North Carolina losing at Syracuse (which was expected) but scoring only 45 points, the fewest by a Carolina team since 1979. 

Virginia and NC State were arguably playing as well as any other teams in the league not named "Syracuse" or "Pittsburgh", so why wouldn’t it be a good game?

Probably because Virginia turned things up to 11 in a big hurry. 

The Cavaliers hit 15 of their first 21 shots and retrieved three of their six misses and turned them into five second-chance points. They scored in the halfcourt. They scored in transition. But mostly, they scored off of NC State’s offensive miscues, whether it was pushing it upcourt quickly after a bad NC State shot or taking a turnover the distance.

Virginia had 10 fastbreak points — all in the first half, capped off by an empathic Akil Mitchell dunk at the 1:13 mark of the first half to put the Cavaliers up 25, their biggest lead of the night.

It was 6-4 at the 17:24 mark. It was over six more minutes before NC State would score another point, and by then, it was 21-4. That’s the football equivalent of being down three touchdowns to a team that runs the wishbone. 

That stretch, though, was what disturbed NC State junior guard Desmond Lee. He’s arguably the heart and soul of the Wolfpack, at least when it comes to effort and intensity. But sometimes all of the scrappiness in the world doesn’t matter if a team is playing that much better than you are. 

"It’s very frustrating, like to the point where everybody is just looking at each other like ‘What’s going on? What’s happening?’ It was real frustrating to me because it was like we didn’t know what to do," Lee said. "Everything we tried, it just wasn’t working."

That hot stretch of offense for Virginia (which was also bad defense by NC State) was more than enough to give the Cavaliers a lead they could nurse all night. Virginia shot just 34.5 percent in the second half, and it didn’t matter. Probably because NC State’s shooting went down from 36.8 percent in the first half to 23.1 percent in the second. 

Still, NC State head coach Mark Gottfried was pleased with his team’s defense in the second half. 

That’s about the only positive to take away. 

"We came out in the second half, I think defended pretty good. We still couldn’t score, and then it got frustrating because we just continued to offensively struggle to put the ball in the basket. 

NC State’s leading scorer T.J. Warren — one of the best scorers in both the ACC and the country — was absolutely shut down by Virginia’s Joe Harris, all while he tied for the team lead in scoring with 16 points of his own. Warren had a season-low four points on 1-of-9 shooting, and four turnovers. 

As Virginia’s defense bumped and jostled Warren through the lane trying to get open or get a good screen, NC State’s offense stalled.

"A lot of teams are going to start keying in on T.J. because T.J. is our best player. He’s the one that can score in so many ways," Lee said. "We’ve just got to screen for each other to get the next man open to be able to make a shot. If we can’t screen for each other, can’t get the other guy open, it’s going to get ugly. That’s how that goes. 

"We’ve just got to run our offense and trust our offense and screen for each other harder and play physical. … They were being physical with us and when they were pushing us around, we were just looking at the referee."

NC State is headed on the road for two straight games, and they’re both games that the Wolfpack really need to win if they want to stay in the NCAA Tournament picture. 

Fortunately for this young team, even though they’ve lost their last three home games (to Missouri, Pittsburgh and Virginia), they’ve won their last three road games (at Tennessee, at UNCG and at Notre Dame).

So there’s a little bit of air back in the balloon. And the mere mention of the road game coming up was the only thing that prompted Lee to smile in the postgame.

"All we’ve got is ourselves out there on the road and everybody’s in tune with each other, everybody’s talking," Lee said. "So over the course of the game, everybody’s just doing what they’re supposed to do to win the game on the road. Nothing else matters."

But good luck picking out predictive trends in this league. North Carolina lost its first game this season to a top-25 team today after beating three previous to that but has lost to several mid-tier teams. Duke typically is one of the leaders of the proverbial ACC pack; the Blue Devils are struggling and in need of answers that don’t seem readily available. 

And so who’s to say NC State can’t suddenly become a team that wins all its road games? Who’s to say the Wolfpack can’t have a nice bounce back like they did last week after getting crushed by Pittsburgh, winning at Notre Dame?

 One game at a time is definitely a coaching cliché, but it kind of applies in this year’s wild-and-crazy ACC.

"You’ve got 18 games to play in this league. We won at Notre Dame, it’s one win. That’s all it is. You lose at home, it’s one loss. We’ve got to find a way to get it back. We’ve got to get it back somehow," Gottfried said. "We’ve got to find a way to play better, obviously, than we did today. 

"We’re not looking at it two games, three games. We’re looking at one game, the next game. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play for the next game."