NEW YORK — Coaches and television talking heads like to say that tournament time marks the start of a new season.
If that’s the case, NC State’s second season looked a lot like the first.
And it didn’t last long.
In a performance that mirrored so many others for the Wolfpack during this lost season, coach Kevin Keatts’ team shot poorly, had trouble defending the rim and suffered just enough lapses to fall behind by double digits before staging a too-little-too-late rally.
The result was a 70-64 setback to Clemson on Tuesday in the opening round of the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center that finally put State out of its misery. The Wolfpack finished the year by dropping 11 of their final 12 games to finish at 11-21, the most losses in a single season in school history.
“Any hooper that steps on the floor doesn’t like losing,” said senior wing Jericole Hellems. “As a competitor, I saw myself and my teammates going the distance and believing in each other. Of course it’s disappointing, but we’ve got to find a way to learn something and prove ourselves.”
Hellems finished the game with 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in his final game in a State uniform. Teammate Dereon Seabron led the way with 19 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in what could also be his Wolfpack swan song.
But as has happened so many times, two of the players Keatts has counted on to carry the team got little to no help from a third top performer.
In this case, it was usually sharpshooting guard Terquavion Smith.
Named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team last week, Smith set a rookie school record by making 96 3-point baskets in his debut season. But Tuesday, in a nightmarish replay of an earlier meeting with Clemson on Jan. 8, he misfired on all seven of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Smith missed his first 10 shots overall before finally getting a floater to go down with 3:38 remaining and his team trailing 60-50, ending a streak of 17 consecutive misses against the Tigers.
“As bad as it sounds, he had two bad games,” Keatts said of Smith, who finished with seven points on 2 of 13 from the floor. “He just didn’t make shots. It doesn’t take away from a man who made 96 3-pointers. Did Clemson do anything different? I don’t think so. He just didn’t make shots.”
Smith was far from the only one.
Casey Morsell went 1 of 6 from long range (3 of 10 overall) while the Wolfpack shot just 34.9% from the floor and 17.4% on 3-pointers.
“I have no problem with our shots,” Keatts said. “I thought we got good looks. They just didn’t go down.”
In spite of those shooting woes, the Wolfpack managed to stay within hailing distance of the Tigers for the majority of the game.
A 3-pointer by Hellems and a Morsell baseline jumper got State to within one at 25-24 with 1:42 left before halftime. But a pair of Clemson baskets to end the half and two more to start the second quickly put it back into catch-up mode.
Once again, the Wolfpack nearly did catch up. This time they pulled to within three at 39-36 with 12:18 remaining on a fast-break basket by freshman Breon Pass off a steal from Morsell.
The basket energized the State fans in attendance and appeared to give the team some momentum. Again, though, it didn’t last. This time the Tigers ran off eight straight points — the final six coming on back-to-back treys in transition by Nick Honor — to open up their biggest lead of the game.
From that point on, the only thing left to be decided was the final margin.
“(That was a) huge momentum swing for us,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, whose team has won five straight to improve to 17-15. “They’d made a run and had taken momentum from us. This is a game where players got to make plays. Nick, both of his shots were just a guy making big-time shots. We didn’t call anything. It’s just him recognizing the situation and staying in attack mode, being confident and hitting big shots.”
While Honor delivered the dagger that finally put the Wolfpack away, it was teammate PJ Hall that did the most damage.
A 6-foot-10 sophomore, Hall did what so many other opposing big men did to State after star center Manny Bates suffered his season-ending injury less than a minute into the season opener. He scored 18 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked shots while also handing out three assists.
The Wolfpack duo of Ebenezer Dowuona and Jaylon Gibson did what they could, combining for 14 points and seven rebounds. But all they got for their efforts was another learning experience.
“With this game, you’ve got to grow quick,” Gibson said. “It’s not going to show no mercy. You’ve got to grow quick, get some toughness about yourself and just pick up things. Without Manny, I had to pick up things like that.”
As painful as this season has been, Keatts said that it hasn’t been a total loss — as long as they handle the aftermath constructively.
“The thing that we talked about is don’t miss out on your lesson,” Keatts said. “A lot of times people think there’s lessons because you win the game. Well, there are a lot of lessons that we can learn through this year. So we’re all going to individually learn our lessons. We’re going to figure it out, and we all will become better because of it.”