RALEIGH — NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts blamed his team’s latest loss on the “little things” that have plagued the Wolfpack at the end of games all season.
In this case, though, a big deficit at the start of the game was equally responsible for State’s downfall.
The Wolfpack surrendered the game’s first 15 points to Virginia Tech over the opening 7½ minutes Wednesday and spent the rest of the evening battling to get back into contention.
Although it eventually cut the deficit to as few as one in the final minute, it wasn’t able to come all the way back, falling 62-59 at PNC Arena when Terquavion Smith’s 3-point jumper hit the back of the rim as time expired.
“I played for a coach that always said that early leads never last,” Keatts said after watching his team fall below .500 overall for the first time this season. “Every timeout we talked about winning that four-minute segment, and I thought our guys bought in and we won the four-minute segments.
“Virginia Tech is a good basketball team … but I’m worried about NC State. We’ve got to figure out how to cut down or limit our plays that cost us games at the end.”
The Wolfpack (8-9, 2-6 ACC) beat the Hokies 68-63 with a late rally in Blacksburg two weeks ago. For a while, though, this game bore a striking resemblance to another previous matchup between the teams.
On Feb. 2, 2019, State shot just 16.7% from the floor on the way to a 47-24 loss to Tech at PNC in the lowest-scoring ACC game in the shot clock era.
The Wolfpack came out just as cold on Wednesday, missing its first 10 field goal attempts before backup big man Jaylon Gibson made a layup off a feed from Cam Hayes at the 12:38 mark.
By that time, State had spotted Tech (10-7, 2-4) a 15-0 lead.
“We came out, we weren’t hitting our shots,” said Wolfpack star Darien Seabron, stating the obvious. “Then on the defensive end we were blowing too many assignments, giving guys open looks and letting them drive in the paint and get easy scores at the basket.”
Although the Hokies’ lead ballooned to as many as 18 at 31-13 with 2:32 remaining in the half, State never let the game get away from it despite its struggles on both ends of the floor.
Thanks to the contribution of Casey Morsell, who came off the bench to make three of his four first-half shots — including a pair of 3-pointers — the Wolfpack was able to cut the deficit to 14 by halftime.
Close enough to regroup and make a serious run at winning the game over the final 20 minutes.
“We just had to stay together and not have mental breakdowns,” said Morsell, who finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three steals in by far his best game since injuring an ankle in a four-overtime win against Nebraska on Dec. 1. “Even though things weren’t going our way, we had to keep fighting and crawl back into the game.”
The comeback was fueled by the shooting of Smith, who made all four of his 3-pointers and scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half after starting the game by missing six of his first seven shots.
Jericole Hellems (15 points) and Seabron (13 points) also finally began to get in a rhythm while the Wolfpack turned up the heat on the defensive end by scoring 17 of their 38 points off Hokies turnovers.
Although State was never able to come all the way back and take the lead, it did have a chance to tie with 4:40 left. But Seabron missed the front end of a one-and-one. Justyn Mutts, the Hokies’ leading scorer with 13 points, answered with a basket at the other end to extend the lead back to four.
A Storm Murphy 3-pointer, Tech’s only basket in the final four minutes, made it a seven-point game. And that proved to be enough to hold the Wolfpack off.
Not that State didn’t give it a good run.
Five straight turnovers and three Seabron baskets put the Wolfpack in a position to tie the game with 12.4 seconds remaining. But Smith misfired on a hurried 3-point attempt from the top of the circle after fumbling the inbounds pass.
“We know as a team we can compete with any team in the country. It’s just locking in on one last play or completing a possession, just doing the little things it takes to win games.” Morsell said. “The big things we’re fine with in terms of scoring the ball and doing different things to put us in a position to win. It’s the details we need to figure out to close out games.”