These opportunities don’t come along often on N.C. State’s schedule, especially not the rest of the way. There are so many games where the Wolfpack is going to be just flat-out overmatched. There are a few that will be played on even terms. Wednesday was one of them.
Another one slipped away from N.C. State, this time against Georgia Tech, 90-83, and there aren’t many games like this left. Both teams came in with one ACC win and N.C. State exited with one ACC win, and the Wolfpack could be stuck on that number for a while.
Clearly, the strain of coming in 1-6 in the ACC took its toll on the Wolfpack, leading to a dismal first half punctuated by a Charles Mitchell dunk that gave Georgia Tech a 14-point lead and leaving N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, for the first time this season, to question his team’s effort. And heart. And resolve.
Gottfried has tried to pump this team’s tires for three months, but the air came hissing out in anger Wednesday night.
“You get to a point with young people where you’ve got to make a decision,” Gottfried said. “You can accept your fate or you can do something to change it.”
This uncharacteristic lapse was particularly damaging because Wednesday stood as one of the best opportunities left on the Wolfpack’s ACC schedule to pick up a win. And when N.C. State cut that halftime deficit to one midway through the second half, the Wolfpack was certainly in position to do it.
Then Abdul-Malik Abu picked up a technical foul for spiking the ball, and Marcus Georges-Hunt scored five points without a tick of the clock to kick off a 15-1 Georgia Tech run, and that was that.
There was nothing new with the rest of it. Abu set a new career-high with 22 points and Cat Barber came within a whisker of his with 36 despite still being a little gimpy from the knee injury he suffered Saturday. But their five teammates combined for 25 points, and the collective defensive performance was an unmitigated disaster.
Georgia Tech had cracked the 90-point barrier only twice this season, against Cornell and Green Bay. That has to sting as much as 1-7 does.
“It’s hard. Every game, we feel like it’s winnable for us,” Barber said. “That’s the reason it’s so hard. It’s right there and we let it fall. That’s hard, knowing that we could have won a game and we didn’t.”
Wednesday hurt in other ways as well. N.C. State’s chances of making the NCAA tournament have long been limited to winning the ACC tournament. After Wednesday night, the Wolfpack’s chances of making the NIT may be just as slim.
Realistically, the Wolfpack is going to have to go at least 6-12 in the ACC to even have a chance at that postseason tournament, which would put N.C. State at 16-15 overall going into the ACC tournament. It’s hard to conjure a scenario where N.C. State gets to six wins without this one, not with the teams the Wolfpack has left on its schedule.
Of course, no one saw N.C. State winning at Pittsburgh, so anything is possible, but the path to the postseason has never been more uphill for the Wolfpack. That’s not something N.C. State’s players may be consciously considering, but it’s damage done all the same.
“This team’s got to figure that out,” Gottfried said. “They better figure it and they need – this is something they’ve got to sit down and talk to each other about, each individual. I don’t like where we are. They don’t like where we are.”
Where they are is 1-7 in the ACC, despite all those close calls, against Virginia Tech and Louisville and Wake Forest. All the losses have hurt, but Wednesday maybe hurt a little bit more.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock