Midway through the first half, Cat Barber sat down. This was big. This was news. Barber does many things for N.C. State, but the one thing he doesn’t do is rest.
When Barber sat out for 66 seconds Thursday, he got more of a breather in one sitting Thursday than he had in the 14 previous games altogether.
As it turned out, he would need the break. Barber converted a three-point play with 17 seconds to play that brought the Wolfpack within three after chipping steadily away at Louisville’s lead late. After the Cardinals missed a pair of free throws, Barber again had the ball in his hands with 10 seconds to go, only to run into 245-pound Cardinals forward Chinanu Onuaku and lose the ball out of bounds.
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N.C. State is running Barber into the ground, but what choice does the Wolfpack have? He’s the ACC’s leading scorer, but that may not be as impressive as how much time he spends on the court. N.C. State got another 20 points from Barber on Thursday in the 77-72 loss to Louisville, but it’s not like he hasn’t given enough.
The Wolfpack just needs more from others, and it got more Thursday from Maverick Rowan, who fired in four 3-pointers and 17 points with a gargantuan lower lip after fouling Donovan Mitchell early and getting an arm in the mouth for his troubles. But the rest of the very thin roster came and went, and as long as Terry Henderson is out, N.C. State is going to need more out of everyone who isn’t Barber.
Too much to ask? Maybe. But Louisville got 12 points out of Onuaku and 12 points out of Raymond Spalding and a career-high 21 out of Quentin Snider, none of whom are any better than their N.C. State counterparts – while stars Trey Lewis (four points) and Damion Lee (12) were relative nonfactors, with Lee missing the late free throws that gave the Wolfpack a chance to tie.
That left N.C. State still wondering when it will get its first ACC win, a question that became considerably more pressing after the overtime loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, which certainly seemed to be the Wolfpack’s best opportunity on the early schedule. From here, N.C. State goes to Winston-Salem to face Wake Forest, hosts Florida State, visits Chapel Hill and Pittsburgh and takes on Duke at home. That’s a difficult run for a good team, with three tough road games and two very talented home opponents.
There’s a home game against Georgia Tech on Jan. 27, but N.C. State’s only clear-cut shot at an ACC win doesn’t come until March, when the Wolfpack hosts Boston College, which means N.C. State is going to have to manufacture a win somewhere along the line. Thursday didn’t look like all that soft a spot – Louisville’s two previous losses were to Michigan State and Kentucky, although the Cardinals hadn’t beaten anyone of note, either – and N.C. State was off the pace early.
The Wolfpack used a late first-half run to get back into the game as Rowan made shots and got to the free-throw line. A Caleb Martin block turned into a Cody Martin 3-pointer. But N.C. State could never close the gap in the second half, and Louisville pulled away in a barrage of open shots the Wolfpack could not answer.
Rick Pitino is doing it with mirrors. If anything, there’s N.C. State’s lesson from the Louisville loss: Look in the mirror.
Louisville didn’t win because of its star players. It won because the rest of its team outplayed the rest of N.C. State’s team. Barber’s heroics can put N.C. State in position to win games, but he’s going to need more help than this. And soon.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock