The scoreboard showed that N.C. State lost 89-80 on Wednesday night in what might have been senior Ben McCauley’s last game against rival North Carolina, but McCauley wasn’t discouraged.
N.C. State trailed just 39-36 at halftime and played well except for an early second-half defensive lapse against the nation's No. 3-ranked team at the Smith Center.
Consecutive wins over Wake Forest and Georgia Tech preceded the loss to the Tar Heels, and McCauley still had the sense that the Wolfpack (14-10, 4-7 ACC) is playing well.
"We would have loved to have gotten this one," McCauley said, "but we're not going to sell ourselves short. We're going to play hard these last five games and hopefully give ourselves a shot at postseason play."
The postseason is something McCauley said N.C. State players are talking about among themselves now that they’re playing perhaps their best basketball of the season. It probably would take five straight wins plus a couple more in the ACC Tournament for the Wolfpack to gain an NCAA bid, but McCauley said the players haven't given up on that.
Two more wins would make N.C. State a strong candidate for the NIT after the team missed the postseason with a 15-16 record last season.
"The option of playing in the postseason is definitely still there," McCauley said. "I think guys kind of realize that. And that helps us. If you feel as though you’re done with the season after the season is over, then you're not going to win any games. But I think guys are still pretty confident. Unfortunately we came up a little short today, but we've got five games left to finish strong, and I think we will."
Coach Sidney Lowe said he'd rather focus on each of the remaining games individually than the postseason, but there's no doubt that he believes the team is playing better than at the end of last season, when N.C. State lost its final nine games. It won't be easy to continue that strong finish.
Virginia (9-13, 3-8), which didn't seem to have a pulse a week ago, is Saturday's opponent at the RBC Center and is coming off back-to-back wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Wolfpack's other two home opponents, Maryland and Boston College, are fighting for consideration for the NCAA Tournament.
Nonetheless, with point guard Javi Gonzalez improving and center Tracy Smith averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds over the last three gamesr, Lowe sounded encouraged despite the loss Wednesday.
"I’m happy with the way we’re playing," he said. "If we continue to play the way we’re playing now, and sometimes better, we’ll be fine."