CHARLOTTE — Last week’s loss to then-No. 1 Purdue was an encouraging one despite the result.
Friday’s 83-74 loss to Richmond at Spectrum Center was anything but.
While the Wolfpack had a hard time matching up with the Spiders’ size, experience and physicality inside — a problem that’s likely to hound it the entire season — it was the self-inflicted misfortune that State created for itself at the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout in Charlotte that had point guard Cam Hayes in a sour mood afterward.
“We keep giving games away that we should be winning,” Hayes said. “We’re having a lot of mental lapses right now, not locking in coming out of huddles. We’ve just got to do the little things.”
Little things like making free throws. State (7-4) came into the game shooting a respectable 72.4% from the line, but on this night it missed 13 times — including 11 in the second half to short circuit a comeback effort that narrowed a 10-point deficit with 13 minutes remaining to just one down the stretch.
And it wasn’t just anybody misfiring.
Senior leader Jericole Hellems missed three. The normally reliable Dereon Seabron, who finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season, went 4 of 10.
For all of the Wolfpack’s other shortcomings, especially on defense, it didn’t take a mathematician to determine the negative effect those undefended misses had on the outcome.
“The storyline of the game is we’re typically a good free-throw shooting team, and for us to leave 13 on the rim is just not characteristic of us,” State coach Kevin Keatts said. “We didn’t try to miss them, (we) just couldn’t find a rhythm at the free-throw line. … If we make a couple of those free throws, it’s a different game.”
As was the case against Purdue with its super-sized front line last Sunday, Keatts knew that his team in general and young post players Ebenezer Dowuona and Jaylon Gibson in particular would be in for a “helluva matchup” against an equally big Richmond team.
The Spiders featured a lineup anchored by 6-foot-10, 255-pound graduate student Grant Golden, and they wasted little time taking full advantage of the mismatches he helped create. He scored three of his team’s four baskets to help Richmond build a 39-35 halftime lead and finished with 19 points.
Between Golden and frontcourt mates Tyler Burton and Nathan Cayo, the Spiders (7-4) scored 46 of their 74 points inside the paint.
“Playing an ACC team, they’re going to be big, athletic and fast, but we have older guys,” Golden said. “We’ve been here, we’ve seen everything. So we definitely felt we could have an advantage down there early.”
That advantage continued into the second half as the Spiders added some hot 3-point shooting to their arsenal to extend their lead to 10 at 52-42 with 15:45 to go and again to 58-48 2½ minutes later.
It was at that point the Wolfpack finally began imposing its will on its opponent by speeding things up and attacking the rim.
“It’s tough when you play our style and they play their style,” Keatts said. “It’s a difference of styles and one of them is going to win out. I thought in the first half they completely outplayed us in that area with backdoor cuts and everything else. I thought we made some adjustments and did a better job.”
With Seabron, Terquavion Smith (18 points) and Hayes (16 points, three assists) beating their man off the dribble and either scoring or getting fouled, State gradually cut into the deficit, getting to within 63-62 with 8:30 remaining.
But with a chance to tie, Seabron missed the second of his two free throws. Richmond answered with a basket at the other end and held off the Wolfpack the rest of the way.
“We’ve got to figure out how to close games better,” Seabron said, “and how to not have those mental breakdowns on the defensive end late in the game and in the first half.”
Despite the back-to-back losses, Keatts said his team will be better because of the experience it gained over these past two games, especially young big men Dowuona and Gibson.
“Those are two of the veteran teams we’re going to play and two of the bigger guys we’re going to play,” the State coach said. “But it will help us. Hopefully in a couple of weeks when we really get into ACC play, Ebe and Jaylon will both have experience where they understand they can play with anybody in our league.”