It wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, but by accepting a bid to the NIT, coach Kevin Keatts was hoping to give his NC State basketball team a taste of what the postseason is like.
From the emotion welling in D.J. Funderburk’s eyes and voice after the Wolfpack’s 65-61 quarterfinal loss to Colorado State in Frisco, Texas, on Thursday, it’s clear that Keatts accomplished his goal.
A week after experiencing the high of surviving and advancing in an opening round win against Davidson, Funderburk and his young teammates learned a more painful lesson about the finality of March against the top-seeded Rams in a game that wasn’t decided until the final two possessions.
“I walked into the NIT with the expectation that our guys get some experience in playing and we absolutely got that,” Keatts said. “Hats goes off to Colorado State. I thought they played well, they made some plays down the stretch, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of these guys.”
It’s fitting that in a season disrupted by two separate coronavirus pauses and season-ending injuries to veteran guards Devon Daniels and Thomas Allen, the Wolfpack (14-11) continued to be faced with adversity right to the bitter end.
Senior guard Braxton Beverly was forced to sit out the game after taking an accidental elbow to the head and suffering a concussion during Thursday’s pregame shootaround.
Beverly’s absence left freshmen Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore as State’s only true backcourt options. Depth became such a serious issue that seldom-used walk-on Max Farthing, who had played only 12 minutes all season, was forced into action during the first half.
As much of a lift as he provided, his one 3-pointer — made just before halftime — was the same number Hayes and Moore made combined on 11 attempts.
The freshman guards also combined for eight turnovers in a performance Keatts is hoping will serve as motivation heading into their first true offseason in the program.
“You typically like to learn with a win. That’s the best way to do it. You win the game, they don’t play well but you win and you learn from that,” Keatts said. “Unfortunately for us we lost, so we’re going to have to learn with a loss. I think that’s great for those guys to be able to go into the summer and look at that and see what they’ve got to improve, see what they have to work on.
“They’ve got to get bigger, they’ve got to get stronger, they’ve got to be better shooters, they’ve got to be better ball handlers. The greatest thing about freshmen is that they all become sophomores. If they all have a great summer leading up to next year, they can all be really great basketball players.”
As much as State’s young guards struggled, it seemed as though their experienced big men might be able to pull them through, just as they did a week earlier in the win against Davidson.
Funderburk, playing in what will likely be his final college game, combined with redshirt sophomore Manny Bates to score 18 of their team’s 28 points in a first half that saw them jump out to a 7-0 head start before heading to the locker room with a three-point lead.
The second half was a different story, though.
After going 5 of 5 from the floor in the opening 20 minutes, the senior forward shot the ball only twice in the final 20 — making one. Bates shot the ball only three times, making them all. They both finished with 13 points.
“I think they started to put (6-foot-5, 222-pound John Tonje) on me and just told him to front me the whole time,” Funderburk said of the defensive adjustments that allowed Colorado State (20-6) to deny him the ball. “That’s what it felt like.
“Every time we came down, regardless of what the play was, he was trying his hardest to play his role and front me. He did a good job of that and made sure the guards couldn’t see that I was open a few times.”
The frustration of not getting the same touches he did earlier in the game showed on Funderburk’s face during the game. It was audible as he held back tears afterward.
“You can see it on my face, it’s very frustrating,” he said, his voice cracking. “The game is over. (I) can’t take anything back.”
Despite the difficulties getting the ball inside, the shooting woes of the young guards and some clutch baskets down the stretch by the Rams’ Isaiah Stevens (18 points) and David Roddy (16 points), the Wolfpack still had possession of the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead with the shot clock off.
But after a timeout to set up a play, junior wing Jericole Hellems — who led State with 15 points — missed a 3-pointer from the top of the circle.
“What we wanted was a two-part play,” Keatts said. “We wanted Jericole to come off the stagger screen and we thought they would hedge out on it and be able to slip D.J. to the rim. It was one of two options, to either get D.J. on the slip or Jericole to come off and get a jump shot into another ball screen. He had a look. He’s played well for us all year long, so I’ll live with the shot.”