RALEIGH — Two steps forward, two steps back for the NC State basketball team.
After starting the ACC portion of its schedule with two straight wins to head into the new year brimming with confidence, the Wolfpack has now dropped its last two games to fall back to .500 in in the league.
As was the case in last Tuesday’s overtime loss at Clemson, Saturday’s 64-59 loss to shorthanded Miami could easily have been avoided.
The Hurricanes made six of their final seven shots and outscored coach Kevin Keatts’ self-destructive team 14-5 over the final four minutes to win for the first time in five ACC games despite the absence of star point guard Chris Lykes and third-leading scorer Kameron McGusty.
“They were tougher than us,” forward D.J. Funderburk said in a brutally honest assessment of his team’s performance.
“Sometimes teams come in and they’re a little more aggressive than you. They came to punch the clock today at 12 o’clock today and we didn’t. It’s just as simple as that.”
While the Wolfpack wasn’t in sync throughout the game, hurting itself by committing 18 turnovers and shooting just 37.9% from the floor, it was the final five minutes — not the first 35 — that cost it the victory.
State (6-3, 2-2 ACC) appeared to have taken control after holding Miami scoreless for 7:29 and scoring 11 straight points to build a 51-45 lead.
But then, as has happened several times in second halves this season, it lost its edge.
Whether the Wolfpack took its foot off the accelerator or, as Funderburk suggested, the Hurricanes (5-5, 1-4) simply played like they wanted it more, Miami took over down the stretch to overtake State and pull away.
Isaiah Wong, who led all scorers with 24 points, and Earl Timberlake combined for 10 of their team’s final 14 points during the decisive final minutes, while the Wolfpack stopped looking inside and relied too heavily on 3-point jumpers.
State went just 7 of 21 from beyond the arc. Its heavy reliance on perimeter shots led to it shooting just 12 free throws in the game. By contrast Miami, which attacked the basket with much more regularity, went to the line 20 times.
“To be honest, we weren’t patient enough,” Funderburk said. “We just didn’t react to the defense the right way, that’s really all I can say right now.”
Funderburk didn’t have an answer when asked why that happened.
“I’m going to look into it when I get home and try to figure out what went wrong,” the 6-foot-10 senior said. “Right now, I feel it was just a disappointment losing that game. I feel like we’re better than that.”
Funderburk finished with his second career double-double, tallying 12 points and a personal-best 11 rebounds.
But it was hardly his best effort of the season. And he wasn’t alone.
Devon Daniels scored 11 points and went 5 for 11 from the floor, but other than that short spurt when the Wolfpack surged into the lead midway through the second half, he wasn’t as aggressive offensively as usual. Jericole Hellems scored only five points, while freshman guard Shakeel Moore was just 1 of 8 from the floor.
Although Thomas Allen made four of his five 3-point attempts and led the way with 14 points, Keatts said he would like to have seen him shoot more because of the struggles others were experiencing.
“I don’t think any of our main guys played good basketball today,” the State coach said. “I thought they were all just OK. When you look at the stat sheet, Thomas had 14, D.J. had 12 and Devon had 11, but I didn’t think any of those guys played great.
“My biggest thing for us today is that we couldn’t get going. I couldn’t get a hot hand. We didn’t get any of our seniors who played well to lead our younger guys. When that happens, it’s not a great formula to win the game.”
It also doesn’t help when nobody boxes out on the defensive glass, a mistake that allowed Timberlake to tip in a Wong miss with 23 seconds remaining and give Miami a 60-57 lead. Moore then missed at the rim before Timberlake sealed the Wolfpack’s fate with a pair of free throws.
“They found a way to win,” Keatts said. “We found a way to lose.”