CINCINNATI — In the quiet that came after their 68-57 loss against Cincinnati on Tuesday night, some N.C. State players lingered on the court at Fifth Third Arena and spent time with parents and family members, thinking about what might have been if not for the final three or four minutes.
For more than 36 minutes, the Wolfpack played reasonably well. N.C. States performance was never an artful one, or even all that aesthetically pleasing, but it trailed by four points with less than four minutes to play. Then the Wolfpack simply stopped making shots and effectively running their offense against the Bearcats relentless defense.
We just need to get in our offense a lot better, point guard Tyler Lewis said. But its still early and weve still got a lot of young players. And Im young as well, only a sophomore. We played hard, we played with great intensity. And we almost came very close.
N.C. State did that, at least. The Wolfpack came close.
In the final minutes, coach Mark Gottfried looked out on the court and saw what the Wolfpack is at this point: A young, inexperienced team. The youth showed in some of the mistakes down the stretch the rushed shots and ineffective possessions.
A more experienced team might have handled the pressure better. Instead, it at times looked like the Wolfpack panicked.
Late in the game, crunch time, weve got to execute a little bit better, make hard cuts, good passes, Gottfried said. I thought we looked like a young team that froze at times, and guys werent cutting and moving. So weve got to learn from that.
The turning point, in Gottfrieds eyes, came earlier in the second half. It came with his team leading 48-46 after a T.J. Warren jump shot with 11 minutes, 20 seconds to play. Seconds later, Ralston Turner, a junior guard in his first season with the Wolfpack after transferring from Louuisiana State, picked up his fourth foul.
Turner, who along with Warren led N.C. State with 13 points, had been playing well. His fourth foul, which he received a little more than a minute after his third, forced him to the bench and N.C. State never seemed to regain what little momentum it had.
It definitely hurt us, but thats not the deciding factor, Turner said. Theres a lot of things that we can go back to and point out things we could have done better.
A lot of those things came late, in the final few minutes. By then, the Bearcats had long reclaimed the lead but they had yet to start pulling away.
Cincinnati led by six the largest lead for either team at that point with about 51/2 minutes to play before Wolfpack guard Desmond Lee cut the Bearcats lead to four.
Lees shot came with 5:12 to play and N.C. State nearly went the rest of the game without making a shot from the field. The Wolfpack missed its next five shots and the Bearcats, led by 21 points from Sean Kilpatrick, methodically extended their lead.
In the final minutes, Cincinnati, which often pressed in the backcourt and applied heavy pressure throughout the game, appeared to be the fresher team. The Wolfpack played tired physically and mentally. And it might have been, given its relatively thin rotation.
Gottfried used eight players but only six played more than 15 minutes. Eight Cincinnati players played at least 16 minutes.
We knew they only had eight players and our game plan was to wear them down and use our depth to our advantage, said Bearcats forward Justin Jackson. And it helped us in the end.
Neither team shot well, but the Wolfpack shot worse from the field. N.C. State made eight of 30 field goal attempts in the second half and shot 32.8 percent overall and it went about five minutes without making a field goal until guard Anthony Barber scored on a meaningless layup with 14 seconds to play.
That made the final score look a little bit better, but Gottfried and his players walked out of their locker room believing theyd come close only to fall apart in the final moments. After Lees jumper cut Cincinnatis lead to 57-53 with about five minutes to play, the Bearcats closed the game on an 11-4 run.
The difference in the game was learning how to execute under duress, Gottfried said. Thats where you become a well-oiled machine, is when you can handle some of this pressure and just continue to run your offense and get the right shots and make shots, and we didnt do that down the stretch.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter