RALEIGH — There were only so many ways for N.C. State’s players to describe Wednesday’s 85-84 overtime loss to No. 19 North Carolina.
With the Wolfpack’s clearest path to a realistic shot at an NCAA tournament bid at stake, the first word that came to mind in the post-game interviews was painful.
You didn’t have to be at the PNC Arena listening to sophomore T.J. Warren, who scored a career-high 36 points, or junior Ralston Turner, who made four 3-pointers, to feel the Wolfpack’s disappointment.
Both Turner and Warren were able to articulate the real sting of Wednesday’s loss, and it wasn’t because it came at the hands of the Tar Heels.
“It’s definitely frustrating because it’s another game that we should have won but we just didn’t execute,” Turner said.
Like the waning moments at Syracuse on Feb. 15, or the final minutes of a home loss to Missouri on Dec. 28 or the final sequence of a loss at Wake Forest on Jan. 15, the Wolfpack was so close to an important win but couldn’t make one more play.
“We’re just going to have to learn the hard way,” Turner said.
Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer, was spectacular with his seventh 30-point performance of the season and traded scoring punches with UNC guard Marcus Paige (35 points).
The two stars went back and forth, but it was the one play that Warren couldn’t make – about 75 feet from the basket – that ended up hurting N.C. State’s chances the most.
Up 83-81 with 41.6 seconds left in overtime and with the ball, Warren took the inbounds pass in the corner in front of UNC’s bench. He was trapped and lost the ball out of bounds with 36.9 seconds left.
“They held me but the refs didn’t call the foul,” Warren said. “It’s whatever.”
North Carolina turned Warren’s turnover into a James Michael McAdoo layup and tied the score at 83 with 30.5 seconds left.
Warren, who tied the game in regulation after an off-the-ball foul by Leslie McDonald with 1.5 seconds, wasn’t blaming the officials.
“There were some questionable calls but the referees, they do a great job,” Warren said. “There’s not much you can say about that.”
Warren was more disappointed he couldn’t convert both of his free throws after McAdoo’s basket, with 7.7 seconds left in overtime.
Warren made one, the second, to give the Wolfpack an 84-83 edge, but Paige was able to drive around N.C. State’s defense for one last dagger with 0.9 seconds left for the win.
Warren lamented the Wolfpack’s ability to close out the game in overtime after he scored the first six points and staked N.C. State to a 77-71 lead.
“We should have executed more on defense at the end of that game,” Warren said.
There was a similar refrain after the 56-55 loss at Syracuse, when a pair of turnovers in the final 45 seconds cost the Wolfpack a huge upset. Either win would have bolstered NCAA tournament hopes.
Instead, N.C. State is 0-8 vs. the top 50 in the RPI, when with a better closing kick against UNC, Syracuse and Missouri, it could be 3-5.
“The main thing for us is just finishing,” said Turner, who scored 16 points. “That kind of has been our Achilles’ heel all year.”
The Wolfpack gets three more regular-season games before the ACC tournament. Pittsburgh, No. 46 in the RPI, is the only other chance for a strong win.
A long run will have to follow in Greensboro for the Wolfpack to make the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
Turner said the team’s not ready to give up on its postseason hopes yet, no matter how long the odds.
“It’s tough to swallow, but you have to move on because the season is not over yet,” he said.