The last time N.C. State beat the No. 2 team in the country – and that was only seven weeks ago – the Wolfpack had a total of 18 hours to recover, regroup and reassess. The exultation of beating second-ranked Arizona in the Bahamas was quickly dimmed by a four-point loss to Northern Iowa played at a slow pace that seemed to lull the Wolfpack to sleep. A loss to Tennessee followed in the third-place game.
Since Saturday’s 96-85 upset of second-ranked Duke, the Wolfpack has had more time to rest and more time to luxuriate in the victory, including all day Sunday.
“They really had a chance to enjoy the win, which I want this group to do that, so we got back in the gym and got back to work on Monday,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said.
In addition to time, the Wolfpack also has the experience of going through this same set of emotions once already as it prepares to host Clemson on Thursday. Those memories are still fresh, the lessons learned still at the forefront of their memory.
“Just be ready to move onto the next game,” said N.C. State freshman guard Braxton Beverly, who scored 20 points against Arizona and eight against Northern Iowa. “Both of them were very good wins for us. You can celebrate that night, celebrate any win you get, but you can’t live in the past. You’ve got to get past that, continue to work and continue to get better.”
In the Bahamas, the Wolfpack went from a lockdown defensive performance with unselfish offense one night to getting outplayed by a less athletic opponent on the defensive end while settling for bad shots at the other.
The Wolfpack had 17 assists on 27 field goals against Arizona and shot 40 percent from 3-point range, then had only seven assists against Northern Iowa, shooting 33 percent. The Panthers scored on their final four possessions to beat N.C. State 64-60; the Wolfpack finished the Arizona game on a 13-1 run full of clutch defensive stops.
In many ways, those two games represented the yin and yang of N.C. State this season: The Wolfpack at its best, sharing the ball and hustling on defense, and the Wolfpack at its worst, taking bad shots and giving up easy ones.
That’s also kind of how things went with Notre Dame and Duke, but in reverse. Based on one metric, the Notre Dame loss was N.C. State’s worst performance of the season and Duke was its best, a mere three days apart. The Duke game in particular saw N.C. State do a terrific job of distributing the basketball, just as the Wolfpack did against Arizona, with 17 assists on 34 field goals.
If that’s how things are going to be, then it’s fair to ask, what did N.C. State learn from the aftermath of the Arizona game that it can apply to the aftermath of the Duke game?
“Just how to handle that emotion,” N.C. State redshirt junior forward Torin Dorn said. “When you win a big game, your phone is buzzing off the hook and the media’s in your head, so you have to learn how to turn the page and get your focus up. I think we learned that after Arizona and we can apply that here.”
It won’t be easy. Clemson has played its way into the top 25, is 3-0 in the ACC, has lost only once and beat the Wolfpack by 16 at home less than two weeks ago. Then again, no one gave N.C. State much of a chance against Arizona or Duke, either.
“Getting wins like that gives you validation,” Dorn said. “We work hard for it, and we plan to win games like that.”
Whatever N.C. State has learned this season, that may be the biggest lesson of all.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Clemson at NC State
When: 9 p.m., Wednesday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh