Loss to Carolina forces Wolfpack to reset expectations

Pressure to earn an at-large bid led to uneven play

Feb 10, 2018; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts directs his team during the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at PNC Arena. The Tar Heels won 96-89.Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

RALEIGH — NC State entered this week with thoughts of an NCAA bid. After a 96-89 home loss to North Carolina gave the Wolfpack two straight losses, Keatts tried to get his players to think about how far they’ve come, rather than where they might end up going.

“Our expectations coming to the season from everyone outside of our program were pretty much low,” he said. “Obviously being picked 12th (in the preseason ACC poll).”

The Pack came up just short of a season sweep of the Tar Heels, which would have been its first since 2003, but that disappointment — and the damage it did to hopes of an NCAA at-large bid—shouldn’t dim the success the team has seen this year.

“My message to the team is that we have become a very good basketball team. You don’t accidently beat the likes of Arizona, Duke and Carolina and Clemson, the way they are playing this year,” Keatts said.

The Pack were led by Torin Dorn’s 21 points. Allerik Freeman continued to torch the Tar Heels, following up his ACC record 7-for-7 performance from the 3-point line in the first game with 17 points on Saturday. State had six players score in double figures and hit 7-of-13 from three-point range.

“When you look at us, we’re scoring against everybody,” Keatts said. “Now, we have to figure now where do we go from here.”

The Pack will need to improve on defense. After Virginia Tech shot 63.5 percent from the field against the Pack on Wednesday, State allowed the Tar Heels to shoot 56.3 percent. The Pack had no answer for UNC’s Luke Maye, who scored 33 points — three shy of the Tar Heels’ record in the series, held by Bob Lewis and Antawn Jamison — and had 17 rebounds, missing Billy Cunningham’s 53-year-old school series record by one.

“He played phenomenally,” said Abdul-Malik Abu. “That’s the second time he’s played well against us. I’m just praying we get to see him again. But kudos to him, he played great and with heart and energy.”

To a man, the Wolfpack players praised Maye’s energy level. With Carolina outrebounding State 41-24 and keeping the Pack off the offensive boards for the first 18 minutes of the game, clearly that was a point of emphasis for Keatts, who believed the effort level was tied to the additional pressure of playing to impress the NCAA selection committee.

“Just effort,” said Braxton Beverly. “I think we just kind of let it get to us and get down on ourselves, instead of just picking each other up and saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’re fine,’ and just continue to get stops and play for each other.”

So, while a sweep of the Heels and another scalp on the NCAA resume would have been great, Keatts emphasized the big picture.

“Obviously, I’m very disappointed about our loss, but it doesn’t hurt us right now,” he said. “It’s about what we do moving forward. That’s what is important to me. … My message to those guys moving forward is you have to now figure out now how not to beat yourself up. Now we put ourselves in a situation where were playing some of the top teams in the country, and we’re right there to win the games. Now I have to get these guys to change their expectations.”