Even on the night when N.C. State finally seemed to reach its full potential – three months late, but nevertheless – the Wolfpack was still left staggered and wondering what might have been.
For 31 minutes, it was impossible to shake the sense that this is what it should have been like all along. The final nine, and overtime, drove home just how fragile the Wolfpack really is, with the disturbing additional punch to the solar plexus that N.C. State’s last-last-last chance to turn its season around has passed.
After this 100-93 overtime loss, the Wolfpack, after blowing a 16-point lead over Syracuse on Wednesday, now faces the very real possibility of going 0-for-February, given not only a difficult schedule but its inability to close out an opponent that had yet to win an ACC road game.
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Things could hardly have gone any better for N.C. State for the first three quarters of regulation as the Wolfpack set records and knocked in shots. Dennis Smith Jr. made ACC history with his second triple-double of the season against a conference opponent and Maverick Rowan set a new career-high with 31 points.
With Smith a whirling dervish, darting and distributing, and Terry Henderson and Rowan banging in 3-pointers, and Abdul-Malik Abu dunking and – as much as anything – N.C. State actually playing defense, the Wolfpack finally looked the way it was supposed to, the way Mark Gottfried probably imagined over the summer.
“That makes it hard,” Gottfried said. “Our guys did enough to win. They played with great character, they played with toughness, they played with courage, they did everything.”
Even the Duke game, when N.C. State outgunned the Blue Devils in a game that featured very little defense, didn’t offer this same sense of what might have been. In this game, N.C. State actually played some defense, for a while anyway. The Wolfpack forced two 30-second violations, tripling their total for the season, and Rowan blocked a shot, the fifth of his career, making it nearly as rare an occurrence as a Smith triple-double.
All that after the defensive embarrassment in Louisville, when N.C. State perfected a new 2-3, where two players thought they were in man and three thought they were in zone. Anas Mahmoud and Mangok Mathiang approved.
It was, after three months of up-and-down, often-cringeworthy basketball, as close to a complete performance as N.C. State has gotten. Almost.
And then it all fell apart in 8 minutes, 44 seconds.
Everything the Wolfpack had done so well went by the wayside as N.C. State reverted to old habits. John Gillon, who had 23 of his 43 in the second half, had a lot to do with it as well. The lead slowly dwindled until Syracuse tied the score at 84 with 33 seconds to play.
Rowan rattled in a contested 3-pointer with 10 seconds to go, only for Gillon to answer with 1.8 on the clock. Rowan’s 3-pointer at the buzzer rattled off the rim, and Syracuse quickly staked out a seven-point lead to start overtime on its way to the win.
“This one hurts a little bit because it felt like this was one of the games where we put it together,” Abu said. “They just went on a run and they stayed with it. At the end of the game, two kind of crazy, unorthodox shots to go up and to tie, and then in overtime, we just didn’t handle business.”
Yes, Syracuse, a shadow of the team that made the unexpected run to the Final Four a season ago, indefatigable even as Jim Boeheim’s tie wriggled its way down to half mast in exasperation and Boeheim slumped in his chair, chin on hand. As Gillon banged in shots, at one point putting a finger to his lips to silence the crowd, Boeheim slowly returned to life, his unbuttoned collar a reminder of how dire the Orange’s circumstances had once been.
“Our defense just has not been good enough. It’s as simple as that,” Boeheim said. “Our offense wasn’t great, but it’s getting better. For four guys playing, it’s good. If we can get the fifth guy, when he catches the ball 4 feet from the basket, to try to do something with it, it would help. But, you know, it’s not happening. We just can’t stop anybody.”
And that was the winning coach Wednesday.
Just when it looked like the Rescue Squad had finally come to the rescue, two-thirds of it at least – Torin Dorn went to the locker room early and returned to the bench but not the game – the Wolfpack slumped to what might be its most agonizing defeat of the season.
At this time a year ago, they sat and watched – Henderson injured, Dorn a transfer, Smith an early enrollee rehabbing a knee injury. They had such big plans for this season, and other than the win at Duke, none of them have come to fruition. And on the night when it looked like it all came together, it all fell apart.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock