There were stretches in N.C. State’s win over Tennessee on Wednesday night where the Wolfpack had a little bit of everything working.
Guard Ralston Turner was draining 3-pointers, point guard Cat Barber was controlling the flow of the game, guard Trevor Lacey was knocking down big shots and forward Abdul-Malik Abu was chipping in timely points from inside.
N.C. State (9-2), which plays No. 22 West Virginia on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York, was even burying its free throws.
“Once we put it all together, we’ll be a really good team,” Lacey said.
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N.C. State is on track to be a good team, at the very least one better than it was projected to be in the preseason when it was picked by the media to finish ninth in the ACC. The Wolfpack will know more about itself after this three-game stretch.
Fourth-year coach Mark Gottfried’s team will play the Mountaineers (9-1), Louisiana Tech (8-3) Tuesday and Cincinnati (7-2) Dec. 30. After the home game with the Bearcats, the Wolfpack closes the regular season with 17 straight ACC games.
If there’s one major area of improvement Gottfried’s team can make it’s in end-game situations. The Wolfpack has had some problems closing out games, particularly from the free-throw line.
N.C. State entered Friday ranked 16th in the country in made free throws (188) but 159th in free-throw percentage (68.9).
The Wolfpack is 2-2 this season in games decided by single digits with wins over South Florida (68-65) and Boise State (60-54) and losses to Purdue (66-61) and Wofford (55-54).
N.C. State went 12 of 19 from the free-throw line in the loss at Purdue on Dec. 2, with some costly misses on the front end of one-and-one situations.
In the wins over Boise State and USF, N.C. State was a combined 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 3 minutes.
The Wolfpack went 12 of 13 from the line against Wofford but didn’t attempt a free throw in the final 3 minutes.
In Wednesday’s 83-72 win against Tenneesse, the Wolfpack made its final nine free throws of the game and went 11 of 14 in the final 3 minutes.
“I liked our foul shooting,” Gottfried said after the game. “We made our shots which is important for our team.”
There’s still a lingering sense of dread with N.C. State in late-game free-throw situations, stemming from last season’s NCAA tournament loss to Saint Louis.
N.C. State went 8 of 18 in the final 3 minutes of regulation against Saint Louis and saw its chance to advace to the Round of 32 evaporate.
Turner, who was 7 of 8 from the line against Tennessee, has been the Wolfpack’s best free-throw shooter. He has made 90.3 percent (28 of 31) this season. Both Lacey (68.1 percent) and Barber (69.7 percent), who are the primary ball-handlers, need to start hitting a better percentage from the line.
Lacey made 74.9 percent of his free throws (125 of 167) at Alabama. Barber’s average is almost the same as it was last season as a freshman. Both Lacey and Barber made all of their free throws in the final minutes against Tennessee.
That’s a starting point, Lacey said, but it’s a one-game improvement he would like to see become a trend for the Wolfpack.
“Being able to finish is very important for us,” Lacey said. “We went down the stretch and made the majority of our free throws and put them away.”