Wolfpack can’t overcome ‘big’ problems in the middle

Clemson handed NC State its sixth loss in the its last seven games by attacking the Wolfpack's young big men on the way to a 70-65 win at PNC Arena

NC State's Terquavion Smith looks back at Clemson's P.J. Hall after he was called for a charging foul during Saturday's game at PNC Arena (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — The NC State basketball team is like a doughnut. It has a large hole in the middle.

That’s a situation coach Kevin Keatts can’t do much about, not with his best big man, Manny Bates, sitting on the bench in street clothes with a season-ending shoulder injury. 

So he’s had to find ways to work around the inexperience of the Wolfpack’s available big men.

It’s a formula that involves pressuring the ball on the perimeter and shooting well on the offensive end.

Saturday against Clemson, the Wolfpack did neither of those things.

The Tigers scored at will in the paint, mostly on layups by center P.J. Hall or drives to the rim by point guard Al-Amir Dawes, and State shot just 31.7% from the floor — a combination that added up to a 70-65 loss at PNC Arena.

“We got hurt by giving up 44 points in the paint. That’s not a great formula for us to win,” Keatts said after his team fell to 8-8 overall, 1-4 in the ACC. “We’ve got to get better. It’s not just on our big guys. Our guards need to do a little bit better job getting deflections.”

The Wolfpack came into the game with some momentum after breaking a five-game losing streak at Virginia Tech on Tuesday, and for a while it appeared as though it might carry after Thomas Allen, Dereon Seabron and Jericole Hellems made consecutive 3-pointers to stake State to a 9-0 headstart.

Eventually, though, the shots stopped falling, allowing the Tigers (10-5, 2-2) to catch up and eventually take the lead just past the midway point in the half.

Some of the Wolfpack’s offensive problems can be traced in equal parts to a packed-in Clemson defense that dared its opponent to keep shooting from the perimeter and a lack of ball movement to create better looks and driving lanes to the rim.

Sixteen of State’s 27 first-half shots came from beyond the 3-point arc. The only reason it managed to stay within 30-28 after 20 minutes was the fact that six of its eight field goals were 3s.

“They don’t really pressure the ball like we do,” said Allen, who continued his recent upsurge with a pair of 3-pointers and 10 points. “That’s why we had a lot of 3s tonight, because they were in the lane a lot.”

The problem is those 3s stopped falling in the second half.

The Wolfpack made only three of its final 12 attempts from distance to finish 9 of 28 for the game. The usually reliable Terquavion Smith contributed a large portion of those misses by going 0 for 7 — all on 3-pointers.

But according to Casey Morsell, the missed shots weren’t the primary reason for State’s downfall.

“One of the issues is that we’re having our offense affect our defense,” said the Virginia transfer, whose nine points, two assists and two steals helped State outscore Clemson by 10 during his 21½ minutes on the court. “We’re not hitting shots and it snowballs to the defensive end, and it’s tough to get going and get back on track.

“Forget the offensive end. I just think we need to focus on what we need to do on the defensive end to win games. Offense will come. We’re scoring at a high level. We’re in every game through our offense, but we’re not going to close games out until we lock down on defense.”

They couldn’t do that against the Tigers.

While Seabron eventually took over as he has all season by attacking the rim, scoring, rebounding and getting to the free-throw line on the way to a game-high 27 points — to go along with nine rebounds and three assists — all his effort was able to do was keep the Wolfpack within striking distance.

Clemson was able to maintain its lead by answering back by feeding Hall inside or aggressively driving past State defenders to the basket. At one point during the second half, the Tigers converted 10 straight field goal attempts and scored on 10 of 12 possessions.

Hall did most of the damage, scoring 12 of his 20 points after halftime. Dawes added 16 points, most of them coming from close range off the dribble. But they weren’t alone. Clemson shot 57% from the floor in the second half with all but two of their 26 attempts coming from 2-point range.

“When we played against Virginia Tech, we did a lot of doubling of the post,” Keatts said. “Clemson did a good job of entering the ball from the high post where we couldn’t get to a situation where we could get to double those guys. But our guys have got to do a better job of getting around in front and not letting it be easy to come in.”

Despite the struggles of young big men Ebenezer Dowuona, Jaylon Gibson and Ernest Ross — who combined for two points, two rebounds, three turnovers and five fouls — Keatts did his best to put a positive spin on his effort to work around the gaping hole in the middle of his lineup.

“We’ll keep working, we’ll get better,” he said. “We’ll figure out a way to help our bigs.”