STANFORD, Calif. — Eight games have offered Mark Gottfried enough evidence to convince him that N.C. State's basketball team is headed in the right direction.
Almost daily, since Gottfried was hired in April to coach the Wolfpack, he has preached that the N.C. State program, more than five years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance and coming off a 15-16 season, had a "long way to go."
After Sunday's disappointing 76-72 loss at Stanford, the second-straight close call against a major conference opponent, Gottfried admitted Sunday that the Wolfpack, with a 5-3 record, is "close" to being a good team.
That's why he was so frustrated to watch his team let a 12-point lead evaporate against Stanford in the second half, three days after it let a seven-point lead go against Indiana.
"It's frustrating, because I think this team is close," Gottfried said. "We're close, but until we learn, we'll be sitting here doing the same thing every game."
End-of-game execution and turnovers cost the Wolfpack on Sunday against an improving Cardinal team, which improved to 8-1 for coach Johnny Dawkins.
There were stretches, such as at the start of each half, where the best possible version of N.C. State was on display with an aggressive C.J. Leslie attacking the rim and Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood and C.J. Williams providing points from the perimeter.
Despite missing the first three games with an NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits, Leslie has emerged in his sophomore season as the team's top scorer and best player after an inconsistent freshman campaign.
Nine first-half turnovers by N.C. State kept Stanford in the game, while the Cardinal shot just 5-of-23 from the floor. N.C. State got a dominant start from Leslie, who scored the Wolfpack's first seven points of the game.
N.C. State led 18-8 in the first 7 minutes then scored only two points over the next 7 minutes of the first half. The Cardinal overcame its poor, first-half shooting (28.6 percent) and cut State's halftime margin to four, 35-31.
Again, the Wolfpack started the second half strong, roaring out to leads of 47-35 and 50-38, the latter coming at the 15-minute mark on Brown's first 3-pointer in four games.
A minute later, though, N.C. State's problems began. Leslie, who had 14 points and three blocks in the first half in his first start of the season, started to cramp up at the 14:19 mark after he was fouled and knocked to the ground by Stanford's John Gage. Leslie went to the bench, and DeShawn Painter made the free throws in his place.
Up 52-40, Leslie went out and State's lead went down. First, guard Aaron Bright (15 points) pulled Stanford back into the game, at the expense of Brown's perimeter defense.
Then forward Josh Owens (game-high 19 points), who was guarded by Leslie, went to work on the low block and got to the free-throw line at will. Up 61-52 with 7:38 left, N.C. State would score only three points over the next 7 minutes, compared to 19 for the Cardinal.
Leslie returned briefly but missed the final 10 minutes. For the second straight game, Wood fouled out, this time with 5 minutes remaining.
Without Leslie or Wood, the options dried up on offense. Williams' late 3, with 7.6 seconds left, gave the Wolfpack a fleeting moment of hope in a game it felt like it was going to win.
"This is a tough one to take," said Williams, a senior who matched his career-best with 18 points.
Down 75-72, State pressured the inbounds pass, and seemingly got a 5-second call that Gottfried was pleading for, but referee Jamie Luckie called a jumpball when N.C. State's Alex Johnson tied up Bright.
Gottfried, who already picked up a technical foul this season and has been animated at times with the officials - more so than any of his three predecessors at N.C. State - threw his jacket and jumped out onto the court to protest the call.
Stanford kept possession and proceeded to inbound the ball to Anthony Brown, who made one of two free throws to put the game away.
Stanford ended up with more made free throws (29) than attempts for the Wolfpack (20), and N.C. State's bench appeared visibly displeased with the way the game was called by a trio of ACC officials.
Still, Gottfried was more concerned after the game that N.C. State made only 13 of its 20 free throws - which was also a problem in the second half against Indiana - and that it was careless with the ball when there was a chance to win.
Gottfried said every one on the team, players and coaches, needs to take a step back and reevaluate how it lost two games it could have won against quality opponents.
"There's a lot to be encouraged by," Gottfried said. "But we have to look in the mirror and ask, 'How am I going to help us get over the hump?' "