Even N.C. State is at a loss to explain N.C. State.
The Wolfpack turned in another consistently inconsistent performance in losing 88-84 at Wake Forest on Tuesday night.
N.C. State (14-10, 5-6 ACC) fell behind by 21 points at the half, then got as close as 3 points in the final minute, but lost for the third straight time in Winston-Salem.
It was the fifth time in six ACC games the Wolfpack either had a double-digit lead or trailed by at least 20 points in the first half.
“I wish I could (explain it),” said N.C. State guard Trevor Lacey, who finished with 19 points. “If I could, I would.”
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried didn’t have much of an explanation either as his team’s NCAA tournament hopes continue to fade with each inconsistent performance and ACC loss.
“Even within the game, we can be great or we can be bad,” Gottfried said. “We’re everywhere right now.”
N.C. State was good enough in the second half to score 54 points and cut what was a 24-point Wake Forest lead down to 76-71 with 4:21 left, but junior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre had the answers for Wake (11-12, 3-7).
Miller-McIntyre, who beat the Wolfpack at the buzzer last year in Winston-Salem, scored four of his 23 points after Turner’s free throw to push Wake’s cushion back to 80-73.
A three-point play by Cat Barber, who led N.C. State with a career-high 28 points, got the Wolfpack as close as three points, 78-75 with 11.2 seconds left, but Wake’s Cornelius Hudson made one free throw to put the game out of reach.
Gottfried had hoped his team could build off an 81-80 overtime win Saturday at Georgia Tech, but instead the Wolfpack came out as cold as Wake was hot.
N.C. State couldn’t hit water from a boat in the first half, going 11-of-35 (31.4 percent) from the floor. Barber, who posted his second straight 20-point game, was 6-of-11 for 16 points in the first half. The rest of the team was 5-of-24 for 14 points.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest couldn’t miss in the first half. Wake was 19-of-29 from the floor and 9-of-15 from 3-point range. Forwards Dinos Mitoglou and Hudson each had three 3s as the Demon Deacons built a 51-30 lead at the half.
“We weren’t closing out to the shooters,” Barber said of the Wolfpack’s first-half defensive woes. “They have that big boy (Mitoglou) who can shoot the ball, and he got a few open looks and that hurt.”
Wake’s hot shooting put the Wolfpack in a familiar position. N.C. State fell behind by 23 points in a 68-57 home loss to Clemson on Jan. 28.
“We’ve been in that situation before, so we knew what we had to do,” Lacey said.
After two free throws by Miller-McIntyre pushed Wake’s lead to 64-40 at 13:33 in the second half, N.C. State started its comeback.
Lacey, Saturday’s hero at the buzzer, hit two 3s to jump-start the run. A free throw by N.C. State’s Ralston Turner cut Wake’s lead to 76-71 at 4:21 in the second half.
Just like in the Clemson loss, N.C. State came close but couldn’t dig all the way out of the hole.
Gottfried tried just about everything at the start to get his team going — tearing off his suit jacket, breaking a clipboard in a team huddle during a timeout and using a zone.
Wake freshman Mitchell Wilbekin promptly buried a 3 when State went zone at the 7-minute mark of the first half to to give Wake a 36-23 lead.
Wake made just one 3 in the second half, but the Deacs didn’t need much more after the first-half explosion.
Gottfried said you have to give Wake credit for making so many outside shots. He also said he’s not quite sure how to explain his team’s inconsistencies.
“I don’t know the answer. You coach long enough, you see kind of everything,” Gottfried said.
Youth is part of the equation but not an excuse, Gottfried said.
“We’re going to grow up and keep growing up and get better from there,” Gottfried said.
The problem for Gottfried is the Wolfpack is running out of time to fix its problems.