Luke DeCock

DeCock: Close won’t help Wolfpack against Tar Heels

With less than a minute to play Wednesday night, N.C. State had narrowed what was five minutes earlier a 14-point Florida State lead to a mere three points. For the fourth straight game, the Wolfpack was within a possession in the final 40 seconds. For the fourth straight game, N.C. State lost.

If there’s an encouraging aspect to the Wolfpack’s 0-4 start to ACC play, it’s that N.C. State has given itself a chance to win every game. The fact that the Wolfpack hasn’t been able to finish the job is a source of an equal amount of frustration.

“A little of both, to be honest,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said Wednesday after the 85-78 loss to the Seminoles. “I’ve seen bad teams. We’re not a bad team. Most people who watch us know that. This is just part of a young group growing up. But you’ve got to grow up at some point.”

The bigger problem for N.C. State is that the schedule only gets tougher from here, starting Saturday at North Carolina, where the Wolfpack won last season for the first time since 2003. Then N.C. State goes to Pittsburgh and hosts Duke, a brutal three-game stretch for any team. If N.C. State can keep those games within a possession late, that would really be an accomplishment.

The Wolfpack could very easily be 0-7 heading into a Jan. 27 home game against Georgia Tech that now looms as one of N.C. State’s very best chances to pick up an ACC win. (There are also home games against Wake Forest, Clemson and Boston College that qualify.)

These results shouldn’t be unexpected with a team that has no seniors and by Ken Pomeroy’s metric ranks 305th out of all 351 Division I teams in experience. The unexpected departures of Trevor Lacey and Kyle Washington and the immediate injury to Terry Henderson left N.C. State without three presumed starters and relying heavily on players who just aren’t ready to fill the roles they’re being asked to play.

The failure to close out what should have been a win at Virginia Tech was the most glaring example of that. N.C. State had the lead right to the final possession of the second half before losing in overtime. Then the Wolfpack had the ball with a chance to tie Louisville in the final seconds, led at Wake Forest midway through the second half and then fell behind by 11 before losing by three, and hit a flurry of late shots to ask some serious questions of the Seminoles on Wednesday, but not enough.

“It’s been getting old,” N.C. State forward Lennard Freeman said. “We just have to wake up and decide to play. We’re not that far off. We’re not a bad team.”

In each of the past three games, N.C. State gave itself a chance to win after looking dead in the water. It would have been easy for the Wolfpack to crumble in the second half of the latter three games, especially with a roster this inexperienced. N.C. State’s willingness to dig its way back into contention has been as commendable as its tendency to dig giant holes has been worrisome.

Even more worryingly, the Wolfpack has left itself a little more work to do at the end with each passing game. While it’s only January, the schedule only gets tougher. N.C. State is running out of time to extend that final level of effort throughout an entire game. There aren’t that many left.

“Maybe this is the type of game we had to lose to win bigger games, more games down the road,” N.C. State forward Abdul-Malik Abu said Wednesday. “You never know.”

At 0-4, it isn’t easy to weigh the Wolfpack’s persistence against its predilection for losing its focus midgame and inability to finish the job late. Close losses and blowout losses still count the same.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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