There’s never a good time to question your team’s effort.
It’s not that N.C. State’s Terry Henderson wanted to, but another embarrassing, lopsided ACC loss, 85-60 at Louisville on Sunday, left the senior guard with no choice.
“It felt like nobody wanted to compete from the start of the game,” Henderson said. “I don’t know why. That’s just how it felt.”
Those are painful words from a team leader, no matter the point in the season, but especially so with N.C. State (14-8, 3-6 ACC) coming into this game after its biggest win of the season at Duke on Monday night.
Not that this is N.C. State’s first “lifeless” loss, as coach Mark Gottfried put it. There were similar efforts in losses to Creighton, Illinois, Miami and North Carolina. Just like those losses, this game was away from home.
None of the confidence, energy or effort from Monday’s road win at Duke carried over for the Wolfpack against a deep, powerful Louisville (18-4, 6-3) team.
The team looked like it was playing in “cement boots,” Gottfried said.
“We were as heavy-legged and slow as you could possibly be,” Gottfried said. “We had no zip.”
That’s a bad formula on defense against an aggressive, athletic team. The Cardinals lit up N.C. State’s lackadaisical defense in the first half from the behind the 3-point line (9-of-16) and then turned the second half into a contest to see how many open shots it could get.
Forward Mangok Mathiang won the top prize with a dunk at the 11:02 mark in the second half to put Louisville up 66-39.
N.C. State forwards Ted Kapita and Abdul-Malik Abu couldn’t figure out if the Wolfpack was supposed to be in a zone or playing man defense. Abu went one way, Kapita went the other way and there was no one within 10 feet of Mathiang.
“Two guys were playing man and three were playing zone and no one is talking to each other,” Gottfried said. “That was indicative of the whole day. That was kind of a snapshot of our performance.”
The wrong snapshot for a team fighting to stay in the NCAA tournament conversation. The Wolfpack couldn’t build on anything from Monday’s win at Duke.
“We couldn’t do anything right,” Gottfried said. “Everything was lethargic.”
N.C. State has a history of losing after a win over either Duke or North Carolina and that didn’t change at Louisville. The Wolfpack has lost 20 of its last 22 ACC games after a regular-season win over either Duke or North Carolina.
Louisville, a game behind UNC for the ACC lead, had a lot to do with that on Sunday, and the Cardinals were a 14-point favorite going into the game. But still, Gottfried thought his players let the Duke win linger to long.
“There was a lot of celebrating going on, and that’s all nice, but that team looked like we had a hangover out there,” Gottfried said. “It was obvious to me. That wasn’t the same team or the same energy level we had four, five days ago.”
Henderson disagreed with Gottfried’s assessment about the effect of the Duke win. He did agree with Gottfried that the biggest problem was effort.
“Everybody has to buy in, everybody has to understand what it takes to win at this level,” Henderson said. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve done it before, so it’s not like we don’t know what to do.”
Henderson finished by saying N.C. State “will be fine.” Only if the Wolfpack doesn’t play the way it did Sunday.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio