ATLANTA — Kevin Keatts has said all along that he didn’t think his NC State basketball team was the kind of team that could handle talking about things such as its NCAA tournament chances and the opportunity to earn a double bye into next week’s conference event.
Thursday at Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack proved him right.
Playing its worst game in almost a month and allowing the injury-riddled Yellow Jackets to shoot 62.5 percent from the floor in the second half, State squandered a lead it held for the game’s first 30 minutes, along with a chance to control its own ACC destiny with an ugly 78-75 loss at McCamish Pavilion.
The Wolfpack continued its hot shooting from beyond the 3-point line by hitting 7 of its 14 shots in the game. But Braxton Beverly missed two potential tying attempts in the final seconds to snap a four-game winning streak and give Tech just its second victory in its last 13 games.
“What we’ve been doing to win these last four games,” a somber Beverly said afterward, “we got away from that.”
Everything seemed to be breaking the Wolfpack’s way heading into the game, coming off a convincing win against Florida State while rivals Duke and North Carolina left the door ajar for that double bye with losses earlier in the week.
But instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, State (20-10, 10-7 ACC) fell back into some old, bad habits, failing to put away a struggling opponent when it had the chance.
According to Beverly, he and his teammates did exactly what their coach has constantly warned them about by getting caught looking too far ahead into the future.
“I just think we were overlooking it,” the freshman guard said of Thursday’s game. “We were just excited with the way we were playing, and I think we got a little too ahead of ourselves, thinking maybe we were too good. In a conference like this, you can’t take any game off.”
Tech (12-18, 5-12) tried its best to help the Wolfpack out by committing turnovers on four of its first seven possessions and 14 overall and going just 8 of 17 from the free-throw line. State, however, returned the favor by turning it over 11 times, committing 19 fouls — including two technicals — getting out-rebounded 16-11 in the second half and failing to stop Tadric Jackson’s aggressive drives to the rim.
Jackson finished with 22 points on 10 of 19 field goals.
Allerik Freeman led the Wolfpack with 19 points while Torin Dorn added 18 and six rebounds, and Omer Yurtseven had 17 points.
Despite that balance, State had its streak of 50 percent or better shooting performances end by making only 44.6 percent — a number brought down by a 14 of 35 showing over the opening 20 minutes.
And yet, even with all that went wrong, the Wolfpack still managed to lead by eight at halftime. It was still ahead 48-40 with 15:37 remaining when Torin Dorn picked up a long rebound and drove the length of the court for what appeared to be an easy basket that would have put his team ahead by double figures.
But instead of going for a simple layup or a routine dunk, Dorn decided to try and add a little style to his finish. It backfired when his attempt at a tomahawk slam went off the front of the rim. The long rebound went right to Jackson, who turned it into a breakout basket in the opposite direction.
The stunning reversal sparked a 7-0 Tech run that got both the once docile crowd and the home team it was cheering for back into the game.
“I was just trying to attack the rim hard and it didn’t go in and they were able to get a bucket,” said Dorn, who finished with 18 points, to go along with seven rebounds. “I feel like the momentum shifted a little bit, but even with that, we still have to play better in order to win.”
Keatts agreed, saying that while the missed dunk did provide a momentum swing, it was far from the only thing that helped bring State down.
“I just thought we didn’t get the loose balls that we normally would get,” he said. “I thought our guys played extremely hard. I thought we played with great effort. But I thought they beat us to a lot of those loose balls.”
That’s a problem he said the Wolfpack will have to correct quickly, with its regular season finale against Louisville coming up on Saturday.
State can still earn a double ACC tournament bye with a win against the Cardinals and a little help. But it can also still finish as low as eighth depending on the outcomes of other games.
At this point, Keatts would prefer his team focus only on what it can control — something it didn’t do well Thursday.
“My message (to the team) was one game doesn’t define you,” the first-year coach said. “We’ve been playing great basketball. We lost tonight. So what do you do? Do you hold your head down. We don’t have time for that.”
“Whether we won the game or lost the game, we were going to play Saturday. Now we’ve got to figure it out.”