N.C. State played what might have been its best game of the season and still lost to Duke on Wednesday in the ACC tournament.
The Wolfpack poured out everything it had in a 92-89 loss to the Blue Devils, but it wasn’t quite enough.
It was a fitting end to a lost season for the Wolfpack, which suffered through its first losing record (16-17) in coach Mark Gottfried’s five-year tenure.
The effort was there but not the result.
“We were really good against Miami and Pitt,” Gottfried said, noting his team’s best two ACC wins this season, “but I’m not sure we can play much better than this.”
N.C. State and Duke (23-9) traded baskets at a rate in the first half that hadn’t been seen at the ACC tournament since 1974.
The Wolfpack led 53-50 at the half, and made 62.9 percent of its shots, while Duke was only slightly less blistering at 61.3 percent.
I’m not sure we can play much better than this.
NC State coach Mark Gottfried
It was the most combined points in the first half since N.C. State led Maryland 55-50 at the half of the ’74 title game, which the Wolfpack won 103-100 in overtime.
That little historical note might be the only connection between this Wolfpack team and the ’74 national champions. From early departures and critical injuries, very little went right for N.C. State this season.
But that didn’t prevent the Wolfpack from putting up a fight against the Blue Devils.
“They showed up,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The teams traded the lead 20 times and the game was tied 18 times. Sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu agreed with Gottfried that beating Miami (85-69 on Jan. 30) or Pitt on the road (78-61 on Jan. 19) felt better, but their level of play on Wednesday might have been higher.
“It’s crazy to think but yeah,” Abu said. “We shot the ball well, we scored confidently. We had a lot of different guys and it was a balanced effort, but you always want to win.”
Too much of this season was junior point guard Cat Barber doing all the heavy lifting for the Wolfpack. Barber had a game-high 29 points on Wednesday and seven assists. He was able to get to the rim and set up his teammates and balance the floor.
“Barber has been a great player, not a good player but a great player,” Krzyzewski said. “He not only produces points … he produces attention. That attention creates openings for talented players like the Martins, (Maverick) Rowan and Abu.”
Abu finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, while Rowan added 15 points and Caleb Martin had 16 points.
It was the kind of inside-out structure Gottfried had hoped to have when the season began. A foot injury to guard Terry Henderson in the season-opening loss to William & Mary altered N.C. State’s preseason plans.
After an 0-5 ACC start, the Wolfpack was able to put together a 5-8 finish against what was one of the toughest conference schedules.
Wednesday’s loss to Duke was N.C. State’s ninth by single digits. After four straight NCAA appearances, the season will either end with this loss or continue in two weeks in the newly-formed Vegas 16 postseason tournament in Las Vegas.
Either way, Abu said, the returning players will learn from a difficult season.
“It was a season nobody hoped for but we proved to everyone when we’re down, you never count us out,” Abu said. “We never gave up the whole year, no matter what.
“And we’ll get older, wiser and better. There’s bright things to come for this team.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio