Court Vision: NC State sees postseason hopes dim with loss at Wake
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- NC State had to keep winning to give itself a better chance of getting yet another at-large NCAA Tournament bid under head coach Mark Gottfried -- its fourth in a row.
But on this night in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest (11-12, 3-7 ACC) had other ideas. The Demon Deacons went up 51-30 at the half and seemingly couldn't miss, and while NC State mounted a furious second-half comeback that cut the deficit to five at one point, it wasn't enough as Wake took the game 84-88 in a game that wasn't really that close.
NC State (14-10, 5-6 ACC) has now lost four of its last five games -- two to teams with a bad RPI -- and the odds seem very slim for them to make the tournament without winning the ACC Tournament, or beating every opponent left on its schedule.
1. In what might be a metaphor for its season, NC State's second-half effort was too little, too late
As Wake Forest drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer in the first half -- the Deacs, normally a poor shooting team from distance, were 9 of 15 -- NC State junior guard Trevor Lacey could only shake his head.
The Wolfpack have now trailed by significant margins in the first half of two of its last three games. Against Clemson at home, it was a 25-2 run allowed that put the Wolfpack in a 19-point hole (they'd trail by as much as 23 in the first half).
In Winston-Salem on this night, the final 4:40 of the half turned what was a big hole into a cavern as NC State allowed Wake -- already up by 10 points -- to go on a 15-2 run to close out the half and put them in a 21-point hole at the break.
Like the Clemson game, NC State would trail by more. But also like the Clemson game, when the Wolfpack got back to within a possession multiple times in the second half, they didn't have enough. They got down by 24 in this one with 13:33 to go, but outscored the Deacs 44-24 after that to very nearly tie things up, even getting to within three with 11 seconds left.
Perhaps just like this season, though, those comeback efforts were too little, too late.
"I thought they played really hard. We just had too big of a hill to climb," Gottfried said.
"You never want to lose. All of them are tough. For what we're trying to do, we're not helping ourselves by losing," Lacey said. "So all of them are tough. We don't need any more (losses). We've just got to keep fighting and keep winning and not get down on each other."
NC State has good opportunities left for good wins. They host Virginia next Wednesday, travel to Louisville that Saturday and go to North Carolina at the end of February. But they have to win the games in between, too, and that's proven to be a bit trickier.
That's been the real head-scratcher with this team -- beat Duke at home, give North Carolina and Notre Dame a great game; heck, even play Virginia tough on the road -- and then lose or play poorly against the so-called bottom teams in the ACC.
"I don't feel like we came into this game like, 'Oh, we're going to be down like this.' We knew what we had to do," Lacey said. "We knew what we wanted to do. It just didn't happen. We didn't expect them to shoot the ball that well. It kind of hurts when you play good defense and they make tough shots."
NC State doesn't have much time left to regroup. They've got to figure something out, and fast.
But just like it has been in the last few games, it may be too late anyway. But it's not too late to build for the future.
"Everybody is kind of low," NC State sophomore point guard Cat Barber said. "But it's not the last game we play. I just tried to pick everybody up and just tell everybody that we're going to be all right -- just get back in the gym and keep working."
2. Wake Forest's freshmen outplayed NC State's freshmen on this night, and that's big for the young Deacs moving forward
NC State's freshmen have been valuable this season at times, but their youth was on full display in this one. Abdul Malik-Abu (the starting forward for NC State), and twin wings Caleb and Cody Martin combined to shoot 4 of 18 from the field (0 of 4 from the outside) and score 10 points. Abu, in particular, struggled with two points on 1 of 7 shooting.
Abu was going up against Wake junior center Devin Thomas, and that didn't help. But he's provided valuable minutes to the team, and this just wasn't one of those games.
"We can be great, and we can be bad. We're kind of all over the board. I've coached a long, long time now, and I've had teams -- especially young teams -- that do that," Gottfried said. "It's like Malik tonight. I don't think Malik can have a tougher night than he had tonight. He's been playing really well, and tonight he was really bad."
Thomas, though, thinks that won't happen very often: "Abu's a good player. He has a bad back. He won't have too many games like that during his career here."
Wake is even younger than NC State, although like the Wolfpack, they have a few older players they depend on.
They still need a lot from their freshmen, and they got it in this one.
Wake's four freshmen (three of whom start) -- Greg McClinton, Dinos Mitoglou, Mitchell Wilbekin and Cornelius Hudson combined for 30 points on 10 of 22 shooting. It wasn't perfect, and individually, most of them have had better games. But they really need a lot from those guys, and they got good games from all three.
3. Both teams can take something away from the way their respective point guards played
Wake junior Codi Miller-McIntyre and NC State's Barber might be the two hottest point guards in the league. Miller-McIntyre is averaging 23.3 points in the last three outings while playing his game -- getting into the lane and either finishing at the rim or dishing off to open teammates.
And when the game got tight, he stepped up. When NC State cut it to five twice in the final five minutes, he scored on the other end to give his team a cushion.
"Codi led us tonight, especially when it got close," Thomas said. "He was able to keep us ahead the rest of the night."
Miller-McIntyre added: "I just did what I do best, which is get to the rim and not sit back and wait. I just kind of look at it like that. My teammates were just telling me to go, so I just get out in the open court and just go attack the basket."
Lacey said NC State's defensive game plan was to let Wake Forest shoot 3s -- reasonably, anyway -- while containing Miller-McIntyre off the dribble. They couldn't do the latter, and so the former -- the 3-pointers -- got a lot more open. When those started falling, NC State had to honor the shooters and that opened up more space for Miller-McIntyre.
"Codi coming off ball screens, getting in the lane, making plays for guys, closing out, hitting tough shots. They executed their game plan. They just made shots," Lacey said. "That's what Codi does best is get into the lane and finish at the rim, and we really were trying to stop him and pack it in, and they made us pay from the outside today."
He's kind of a matchup nightmare for a lot of opposing point guards -- he's big, physical and tough to guard, even for Barber, who's normally a defensive specialist (but smaller than Miller-McIntyre).
"Codi Miller-McIntyre is a really, really good player. He's tough to guard. He's strong. Cat, at times, was overmatched at times against him but I thought he did a nice job, gave a great effort," Gottfried said.
The good news is that for the second straight game, Barber was the one who kept NC State in the game at all with his spectacular play, scoring at least 16 points in a half for the second straight game. Barber has been, to be frank, not very good for the Wolfpack most of this season, alternating stretches of at times solid play with stretches of straight-up bad play.
But that has not been the case the last two games, as Barber has averaged 25.5 points in that span on 20 of 32 shooting (not to mention 11 assists to one turnover). NC State would love to get Barber and the rest of its perimeter -- Lacey and Ralston Turner -- clicking at the same time. But it's still positive for both Barber and the team to see him do this.
"I feel like I'm doing everything to try to help the team win. But it doesn't matter if we don't win. I think I'm doing a better job of helping my team get more points on the board, with Ralston and Trevor, great shooters," Barber said. "My team feels like I need to score more for us to win, so that's what I'm doing."
51: Wake "won" the first half 51-30, then proceeded to "lose" the second, 54-37 -- and very nearly the game as well, but they made enough plays to hang on.
37: NC State scored 37 of its 84 points off of either Wake Forest's turnovers (16 off of 13 turnovers) or off of their own offensive rebounds (17 offensive boards for 21 second-chance points).
"As much as I'd like to, in my mind, beat up my own team, I want to give credit to (Wake). They played great. I've watched every tape of every game they played. That might be the best half of basketball, that first half, that they've played." -- Gottfried
"We talk about it. It's just, we've got to carry it over to the game and make it happen. I don't think we've faced a first half -- all the times we've been down, it's just been teams have been exposing us defensively where we have bad defense. I think (Wake) hit a lot of tough shots. They were what, 67 percent first half? Can't do too much about that. We played good defense for the -- I would say, 10-12 minutes of good defense in that first half. They just made shots." -- Lacey