GREENSBORO — There’s a time-worn adage in college basketball that it’s tough to beat the same team three times in a season.
The reality, however, is that if a team is good enough to beat an opponent twice, it should be good enough to win the next time they play as well.
So it was with NC State and Syracuse on Wednesday.
The ninth-seeded Wolfpack had high hopes of turning the tables on the eighth-seeded Orange and making a deep run into the ACC Tournament after ending the regular season on a five-game winning streak. But this meeting ended the same way as the first two, with Syracuse coming out on top.
Only this one wasn’t as close.
State struggled offensively against the Orange’s trademark 2-3 zone and had no answer for coach’s son Buddy Boeheim, who finished with six 3-pointers and 27 points, in a disappointing 89-68 beatdown at Greensboro Coliseum.
With the NIT field having been condensed to just 16 teams this year because of COVID-19 concerns, the loss likely ends the Wolfpack’s season — and possibly the careers of seniors D.J. Funderburk and Braxton Beverly — with a 13-10 record.
“It’s a tough team to play against for us with their zone after losing Devon Daniels and Thomas Allen,” State coach Kevin Keatts said, referring to the injuries that ended the season for both veteran guards and perimeter shooting threats.
“Most zones are not as good as theirs. They do a great job. To have to play against that for 40 minutes is a tough situation for us.”
As difficult as Syracuse’s defense was for the Wolfpack to solve on the way to a 36.2% shooting performance, State’s defense — or lack of it — was just as responsible for the lopsided result.
Boeheim, who clearly likes playing in Greensboro more than his father and coach Jim Boeheim, set the tone by hitting four of his first five 3-point attempts and amassing 20 points by halftime.
His hot hand proved to be contagious, as four other Orange players ended the game scoring in double figures on a day in which Syracuse hit 14 treys as a team and shot a collective 57% from the floor.
“We let them beat us from the 3-point line,” Funderburk said. “I could honestly say in the game today, they probably had like 10 layups total against us. The majority of their points were from the free-throw line and 3-point line.
“For the next team that plays them, I just hope they cover the 3-point line and make sure they stay together as a team.”
That togetherness wasn’t there for the Wolfpack. It’s a problem exaggerated by the fact that the team’s two best healthy players didn’t bring their “A” game on a day in which State needed it most.
Funderburk did manage to finish with 14 points, but 13 of those came in the second half after the game was all but decided. He made only two field goals, scoring 10 of his points on 12 free-throw attempts.
The Wolfpack got even less from junior forward Jericole Hellems. He ended up going just 3 of 11 from the floor and finished with nearly as many turnovers (four) as points (seven).
“We have seven guys that are playing and we have such a small room for error,” Keatts said. “If we don’t have one or two of our main guys play well, it puts us in a tough situation to win the game. I thought in the first half the guys who played well were Braxton (Beverly), Manny Bates, and (Dereon) Seabron. We had some other guys in the second half, but we dug ourselves in a hole.”
Bates had 12 points and seven rebounds against a physical Orange defense. Seabron went for 11 points and eight rebounds, while Beverly scored nine points to surpass the 1,000-point mark for his Wolfpack career.
Even after a subpar first half, State only trailed by five, 43-38, at the break. Any hope of a comeback, however, ended quickly when, despite Keatts’ pleas of “Energy, energy, energy,” the Wolfpack turned the ball over on four of its first five possessions and allowed Syracuse (16-8) to open the second half on a 14-3 run that broke the game open.
“They had more energy and a little more effort than we did to start the game,” Beverly, his eyes red with emotion, said. “But the last probably seven, eight minutes of the first half we picked it up. We came back and we had a little run going, had a little rhythm. Then the second half, it’s like they hit maybe like two straight open shots and they were seeing a big basket after that.”
As disappointing as the end of the season was for the Wolfpack, Keatts said the season as a whole — which included two COVID-related pauses and several key injuries before the late-season rally — was anything but a disappointment.
“I told them after the game, I’m not going to define your season because of this game,” Keatts said. “I’m going to define your season by how hard you worked with the adversity, turning things around, and I told everybody I love them and I’m proud of them. And I am.