Luke DeCock

Even after narrow Virginia loss, NC State ahead of schedule

Even as he scoffed at the notion of collecting moral victories, Kevin Keatts couldn’t help noting some equally ephemeral progress elsewhere. While Tuesday’s overtime loss to Virginia was nevertheless a loss, it did mark a turning point in Keatts’ mind.

Along the long and winding road of building a program, there are milestones and waypoints, and this was one. Wherever Keatts expected this program to be at the end of January of his second season, the Wolfpack has far exceeded. Having the kind of team with the mental fortitude to come back from a 14-point second-half deficit against Virginia puts N.C. State ahead of schedule, whatever that schedule might be.

Tack Tuesday’s comeback onto Saturday’s frantic finish to beat Clemson, and the lesson at this point is you can never count N.C. State out. Except in Winston-Salem.

“Obviously it’s Year 2,” Keatts said. “I thought maybe we could play this way in Year 3, but we had success in Year 1 and our guys continue to fight.”

There’s a flip side to that, though, and not just that N.C. State lost to Virginia. There’s no shame in that. In the scheme of things, N.C. State’s path to the NCAA tournament leads elsewhere.

The problem is that the Wolfpack caught the third-ranked team in the country on an off night, a rare set of mechanical glitches in the clockwork orange, some provoked by N.C. State, others self-inflicted, and couldn’t capitalize.

Couldn’t hit the big shot in overtime, while Kyle Guy did on an otherwise miserable night. Couldn’t make the first free throw when Markell Johnson was fouled shooting a 3 down three with 0.9 seconds to go, then couldn’t deliberately miss the third.

Small margins. One possession. One play goes the other way and N.C. State’s fans are dancing on the floor – and PNC Arena security had a late and hurried court-storming briefing near the end of regulation, when that became a realistic possibility.

“It was just enough,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “It was one of those games. You could feel it with the crowd. You could feel it with the intensity. I thought we had it and we fouled a 3-point shooter.”

From this viewpoint, you can see for miles in both directions: How far N.C. State has come, how far it still has yet to go.

But the former gives the Wolfpack a foundation to build upon, and if N.C. State first figured out how to play disruptive defense – Virginia’s 16 turnovers tied its season high, Guy was 3-for-11 and the Cavaliers made only four 3-pointers – it has now developed the elusive belief that it’s never really out of a game, no matter the circumstances.

N.C. State has faced five double-digit deficits this season, and erased them all. The Wolfpack hasn’t won all five, but it has at least given itself a chance. Keatts unnecessarily clarified his criticism of the fans who left early Saturday and missed Braxton Beverly’s buzzer-beater – “a sarcastic jab,” he said Tuesday – but he wasn’t wrong. And no one went anywhere Tuesday.

“We’re just the kind of team, you can’t count us out until there’s triple zeroes on the clock,” Torin Dorn said.

Whether that takes an 8-0 run in 19 seconds to upend Clemson or needing less than 11 minutes to erase a 14-point deficit against Virginia – the mental, if not mathematical, equivalent of 24 points against anyone else – this team has discovered, or developed, a reserve of resiliency that served it well Tuesday. Just not quite well enough.

“If we can continue to play the way we played against one of the elite teams in the country and in the ACC,” Keatts said, “we can be pretty good.”

N.C. State has come farther, faster than its coach expected. There’s still a gap between N.C. State and Virginia, a big one. But it’s smaller than even Keatts thought before.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.