It’s easy to look at N.C. State’s 0-2 ACC start and upcoming schedule and see despair, but Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried sees the opposite.
The way his team fought at the end of a 77-72 loss to No. 16 Louisville on Thursday gives Gottfried hope for Sunday’s trip to Wake Forest (9-5, 0-2 ACC) and beyond.
“We never quit,” Gottfried said. “Our guys gave it everything we had. I do believe we’re just not that far off. We just have to get better. If we do, I think we can be a good team.”
N.C. State (10-5, 0-2) shot poorly in the first half and struggled to defend the perimeter yet still found itself with the ball in the waning seconds and a chance to force overtime against the Cardinals.
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The Wolfpack trailed 71-55 with 3:30 left in the second half when it started to play its best basketball. Wings Caleb Martin and Maverick Rowan, who have to be consistent scoring options to support star guard Cat Barber, hit three 3-pointers between them during a 17-4 run.
There was more “zip” to N.C. State’s passing against Louisville’s zone in the second half, Gottfried said. The Wolfpack shot 45.2 percent (14 of 31) and scored 43 points in the second half after going just 26.7 percent (8 of 30) for 29 points in the first half.
Martin finished with 13 points and Rowan had 17. Sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu added 15 points, including a three-point play to start the closing run.
That’s the kind of help Barber, who leads the ACC in scoring (22.7 points per game), consistently needs. The number of scoring options and the way N.C. State played, in an aggressive manner, is what Gottfried liked the best.
“I just don’t want us to play tentative,” Gottfried said. “They have to turn it loose and let the cards fall as they may.”
Gottfried needs to figure out how to get his players to make more shots. Better ball movement might be a step in the right direction but shooting, from both the floor and foul line, has been a consistent problem for the Wolfpack this season. N.C. State ranks No. 286 (out of 351 teams) in the NCAA in field goal percentage (41.4) and No. 225 in free-throw percentage (67.4).
The absence of junior guard Terry Henderson, out since the opening minutes of the season-opener with an ankle injury, hasn’t helped on that front.
Rowan and Martin have both had to play more minutes in Henderson’s absence. The return of Henderson, who averaged 11.7 points at West Virginia two years ago, would help the Wolfpack’s shooting woes.
Henderson, who had surgery on Nov. 16, has been going through some drills in practice but Gottfried does not expect him to return before February.
In the interim, N.C. State’s staring down a difficult stretch of ACC play with three of the next four games on the road and three out of the next nine games against either Duke or North Carolina.
Gottfried has made midseason adjustments before, in bleaker in situations, and pushed the Wolfpack into the NCAA tournament. March is still too far off to give up hope after an overtime road loss and five-point home loss to a ranked team.
“We’re a good team, we just have to find a way to get over the hump,” Gottfried said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio