Fowler: Inconsistent Wolfpack's season comes to maddening end

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMarch 22, 2013 

SPORTS BKC-TEMPLE-NCSTATE 21 RA

North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried, right, and N.C. State's Richard Howell react during a news conference after Temple defeated the Wolfpack, 76-72, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2013, at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

N.C. State won 24 games. Beat Duke and North Carolina at home. Made the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

And yet the 2012-13 Wolfpack will be remembered as a frustrating team. A cautionary tale. A hare that was beaten by the turtle. As in that old fable, N.C. State never seemed able to sustain the enthusiasm and team chemistry necessary to become the team that by all rights it should have been.

Instead, we’re left with this: Temple 76, N.C. State 72.

After a Sweet 16 NCAA run one year ago, the Wolfpack couldn’t even make it into the first weekend of this year’s NCAA tournament. One, stun and done.

Temple was smaller, less athletic and smarter. N.C. State played a game that was appropriate for this maddeningly inconsistent team – one terrible half, one great half. And that doesn’t work, even when you have a team that looked so good on paper it was ranked No.6 in the preseason Associated Press poll and was picked to win the ACC.

“We just didn’t guard them for 40 minutes,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said later. “It’s real simple. We guarded them for 20.”

Temple led 38-22 at halftime. Those first 20 minutes were where the game was lost. N.C. State made a charge in the second half, as the hare awakened and desperately realized that the turtle had pulled far ahead. The Wolfpack even had a shot to tie the game on a three-pointer by Lorenzo Brown with 1:31 to go.

But that shot missed. Then Temple guard Khalif Wyatt – he was the best player on the floor and scored 31 points -- made enough free throws to ensure his team didn’t pull a Davidson. And it was over. That awful first half – 10 N.C. State turnovers combined with suspect defense – had finished the Wolfpack.

“This particular team never seemed to get to a point where we could sustain and maintain great defensive effort the entire game,” Gottfried said. “That's on me. I didn't do a very good job with that.”

He’s right. He did not. Gottfried was a teacher this season whose students only occasionally seemed to be paying attention. That happens to all teachers, but it shouldn’t happen too often to one who gets to handpick his own pupils.

The blame can be spread around, of course, coating this entire season (which Gottfried called “good” but not “great.”) Pick a player and you can find something that should have been better.

But how could N.C. State not be ready for the NCAA tournament? What was this team waiting for?

“There’s no reason that it’s the NCAA championship and we should come out sluggish,” said Wolfpack forward Scott Wood, who was so effective in the ACC tournament but didn’t score a point for this game’s first 34 minutes.

Playing in the NCAA tournament game is a dream. It’s supposed to be fun. Jim Valvano always had fun in the tournament, and not just 30 years ago when the Wolfpack won that famous 1983 championship. Valvano understood how to wring joy from life.

This N.C. State team rarely smiled. On Friday, glares and befuddled looks were the N.C. State players’ expressions of choice in the first 20 minutes. Gottfried called two early timeouts, huddled with his staff and tried to get it going. Nothing sank in until halftime.

N.C. State’s main offensive play in the first half was a perimeter pass that was intercepted and taken the other way for a layup. The significant size advantage N.C. State held was no factor, because the ball so rarely got inside.

Then, the resurrection. The Wolfpack shot 70.4 percent in the second half, played great defense and turned the ball over only three times. It was nearly a monumental comeback from 18 points down. Instead, it was a “Why weren’t you doing that the whole game?” tease.

“I think this team struggled with a lot of things,” Gottfried said later. “Number one, we had some immaturity at times…. It just seemed hard at times to have everybody buy in all the way. And for us to get better in the future, everybody needs to. Our young guys need to learn that lesson.”

After their locker room was closed to reporters, the Wolfpack players filed out of University of Dayton Arena. Another game was already being played – Indiana was blasting James Madison – and the crowd and the pep bands were incredibly loud. The NCAA tournament was still going full throttle.

A couple of Wolfpack players looked back at the arena, toward the noise. Then they turned away, and headed toward the bus.

Fowler: 704-358-5140 Twitter: @scott_fowler

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