WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — NC State did everything to give itself a chance to win at Wake Forest. It had a higher field goal percentage than the Demon Deacons, while it committed less than 10 turnovers and logged 15 fast-break points.
But the Wolfpack could not close the game.
NC State was held scoreless for the final 1:57 after graduate guard Casey Morsell tied the game at 79 apiece. Though it hung around after a 45-point first half, the red and white fell just short in an 83-79 loss to Wake Forest at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Why? Well, as both coaches put it, one team made one more play than the other. And in this case, it was Wake Forest.
“We made enough plays to win it,” Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. “Nothing fancy.”
“I thought my guys played extremely hard,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts said. “I’m proud of those guys. Do we need to clean some things up? Yes. But I thought Wake made maybe one or two more plays that we didn’t and took care of home court advantage.”
NC State had an opportunity to tie the game with three seconds left, but graduate guard DJ Horne left a jumper just short. That closed the book on the Pack’s chance to steal an ACC road win inside the Demon Deacons’ home gym — something no team has done this season (0-13).
It was not the first contest this season that NC State struggled to close out. The Wolfpack stormed back to force overtime at Virginia in January — after a 15-point first half performance — while it also had a chance to beat Tennessee on a neutral floor in San Antonio in December. Both of those contests ended in a less than 10-point loss.
On Saturday, NC State had multiple possessions down the stretch where it lost a Wake Forest player on the defensive end. One ended in an easy basket on a backdoor cut, while another led to a wide-open three-pointer. Both of those possessions equaled the difference between a win and a loss for NC State.
Horne, who led the Wolfpack with a season-best 31 points on 13-of-21 shooting from the field with four made three-pointers at Wake Forest, was quick to say that the red and white needs to clean up its ability to close contests.
“We just gotta learn how to win in close games, late game situations,” Horne said. “We definitely have to go back to the drawing board and learn how to win these games, so next time we’re not having this feeling right now.”
But while the loss can serve as a learning lesson for the final seven games left on NC State’s regular season schedule, it was a prime opportunity for the Wolfpack to earn its first Quad 1 win of the season. The red and white is currently 0-6 in those contests — including the Tennessee and Virginia losses.
Though that is the case, Keatts brought up the fact that Wake Forest beat the Pack could make NC State’s home win over the Demon Deacons a Quad 1 victory if the team clad in black and gold can move inside the top 30 of the rankings.
“It’s crazy now, I’m going to say this, because they won — they were 32 or 33 — maybe they’ll go to 30 and maybe we’ll get a Quad 1 win at home,” Keatts said. “It’s a weird deal to say that, [I] don’t want to lose a game because of that, but I know a lot of this stuff is focused around quads and everything else.”
NC State currently has four Quad 1 games left on its schedule, and the loss at Wake Forest magnified the importance of each of them. The Wolfpack’s next opportunity for a signature win is next Saturday — after NC State’s week off — at Clemson. After that the Pack, which entered the weekend 80th in the NET, will have to wait until the final three games of the season: at North Carolina, vs. Duke, and at Pittsburgh.
With those games in mind, Keatts thinks the door is still open for the Wolfpack to build an NCAA at-large resume ahead of the ACC tournament.
“Because we have seven games left, I think we still have Quad 1 opportunities,” Keatts said. “I want you to think about this, and that’s not just for us, I honestly think Wake’s playing well and they deserve to be an NCAA team. Well, we beat them once and it’s a one-possession game at the end. … I still think we have a lot of opportunities.”
“I hate getting up here and talking about numbers, but at the end of the day, if you’re watching that game on TV and you’re saying, ‘Man, look at those two teams,’” Keatts continued. “You can’t tell me that that’s not two teams you could see playing in March.”
The path to the Big Dance just got steeper, most likely, but that has not changed the Wolfpack’s mindset. It played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and NC State believes that it still has what it takes to make a run for a spot in March.
“Yep,” Horne said of the NCAA Tournament still being a possibility. “We’ve got a lot of Quad 1 opportunities left. It’s going to be tough but I definitely think we can do it.”