RALEIGH – New year, same agonizing result for the NC State basketball team.
Continuing a pattern that plagued it during the final three weeks of 2021, the Wolfpack put itself in position to win before faltering down the stretch on the way to its fifth straight loss. This time it was an 83-81 setback to Florida State at PNC Arena on the first day of 2022 Saturday.
“It’s very frustrating, because I feel like we’re right there every game,” said forward Dereon Seabron, who did everything he could to help State get over the hump by contributing 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while going 12 of 14 from the floor.
“It just comes down to a couple of mental breakdowns, whether it’s missed blockouts or 50-50 balls. I don’t know. We’ve just got to find out how to close out games.”
The Wolfpack (7-7, 0-3 ACC) couldn’t do it against then-No. 1 Purdue on Dec. 12, squandering a double-digit lead in the final five minutes before losing in overtime or in its most recent game last Wednesday when a late scoring drought helped turn an eight-point advantage into an eight-point defeat.
Coach Kevin Keatts’ team found itself in a familiar position against the Seminoles, leading 58-51 after a 3-pointer by freshman Breon Pass with 11:25 remaining.
But that’s when a familiar problem kicked in.
The Wolfpack made only one of its next nine field goal attempts and went 3½ minutes without scoring. That allowed FSU (7-4, 1-1) to run off 17 of the next 22 points and take control.
State was able to battle back thanks to the combined efforts of Seabron and freshman sharpshooter Terquavion Smith, who accounted for their team’s final 23 points. But after regaining the lead at 75-74 with 1:50 left, the Wolfpack was done in by a series of self-inflicted mistakes and an inability to come up with a rebound at a key moment of the game.
“If we could have back 10 possessions where we maybe gave up a loose ball, where we maybe didn’t get back in transition, where we maybe have turned the ball over, if we maybe didn’t get a 50-50 basketball, I think we have a chance to win the game,” Keatts said. “That’s what we have to get over the hump.
“One of the things I talked (with the team) about is cutting those 10 positions that we could have gotten better at and cut them down to three or four and we’ll put ourselves in a better situation to win the game.”
Two of those costly possessions came in the final 20 seconds.
The first came after the Wolfpack couldn’t pull down a rebound after forcing FSU’s Caleb Mills into a miss for the defensive stop it needed. Instead of getting the ball back down by one with the shot clock off, State had to foul.
Even then, the game was still there for the taking after Matthew Cleveland made only one of the two free throws.
But the Wolfpack couldn’t close the deal.
Things began to unravel when Keatts called timeout with 8.4 seconds left with Seabron, who had been virtually unstoppable over the final 10 minutes, hurrying the ball toward the rim in transition.
Whether that was a good idea or not depends on who you asked afterward.
“I feel like I probably could have made something happen there in transition because I feel like they weren’t matched up,” Seabron said. “They were just running back. They didn’t really have a play. But calling timeout gave them time to set up their defense and made it hard for us to get the ball in.”
Keatts had a different take on the situation.
“When we called it, every Florida State guy saw us call the timeout and so everybody just stopped because we called it,” he said. “Hindsight looking back, I would have done the same thing because I want to run something to try to get him or someone a shot.
“That didn’t lose us the game. If we don’t call the timeout, it’s probably a turnover because he was going to drive into three or four guys.”
In retrospect, maybe Keatts should have rolled the dice. Because after setting up a play in which Seabron would either attack the basket or pass off to Smith for an open 3-pointer, State lost the opportunity to do either when Jericole Hellems – the most senior member of the team – threw an errant inbounds pass that FSU intercepted.
The Seminoles then put the game away when Smith was called for a foul while battling for a rebound on yet another FSU free throw miss.
Smith finished with 23 points, making seven 3-pointers, to join Seabron as the only State players to score in double figures. A resurgent Thomas Allen responded to his first start of the season by scoring nine points, all of which came in the first half.
As a team, the Wolfpack shot 51.9% from the floor. But it committed 16 turnovers and was outrebounded 37-29.
“I’m disappointed,” Keatts said. “But I’m not disappointed in my guys. I’m not disappointed in their fight. I’m not disappointed in the way they compete. I’m disappointed because we’re not getting the results that this team would like to have or deserves.
“My message is keep fighting, because if we keep fighting it will turn around for us. When it turns around, it’s going to be great. But right now, it sucks. It doesn’t feel good. But at the end of the day if you’re watching us and you don’t think that we’re getting better or playing hard, then something is wrong with you. Because it’s not our guys. Our guys are fighting.”