Empty possessions plague Wolfpack as offense fizzles out against Tigers

NC State now waits to find out it’s NCAA Tournament fate on Sunday

North Carolina State guard Jarkel Joiner (1) loses the ball as he drives against Clemson's Ian Schieffelin, top left, Ben Middlebrooks (10) and Dillon Hunter (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

GREENSBORO — For the third time this season, NC State was run off the court by Clemson, suffering an 80-54 blowout loss in the third round of the ACC Tournament.

The Tigers dominated under the basket, outrebounding the Wolfpack 41-28, and were lethal from beyond-the-arc in making nailing twice as many 3-pointers (11-5).

In fact, it was hard to find a single area of the game in which NC State held an advantage.

“They killed us on both ends,” said Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell. “They made shots, killed us on the interior and played a complete game. We knew it was going to be a different game in terms of the type of shots we were going to get. Clemson’s very disciplined on the defensive end.”

For NC State to have had any chance of exacting revenge against the Tigers, it was going to need both Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner going. And, at least for a bit, it looked like that was what it was going to get.

Smith opened up the scoring with a drive to the basket and picked up the and-1, and Joiner had 10 points before the 13-minute mark of the first half.

Things were clicking for the Wolfpack, who at one point had a nine-point lead, but things started to go south in a hurry.

Smith couldn’t get anything to drop, ending the game going 5 of 18 (27.8%) and 0-for-3 from the 3-point line, and Joiner wasn’t finding any luck on offense either, not scoring in the final 33 minutes of the game.

After their monster game the night prior, a combined 50-point performance, it was the worst timing for the Pack’s backcourt to go cold.

And it wasn’t just poor shooting on their part. Wolfpack turnovers helped to kick off the 13-0 run for Clemson from which the Tigers took the lead and never looked back.

The Wolfpack had managed to tread water to end the half, with back-to-back Jack Clark 3-pointers keeping them within three, but they followed that up with a terrible start to the second half and saw the deficit start to grow.

“I thought we played a really good first half,” Keatts said. “Give Clemson credit; obviously a very good win for those guys. They did a good job. I think one of the big advantages is they put themselves in a situation where they could get a double-bye, and you could tell they were the fresher team in the second half.”

The Pack had managed to get DJ Burns going for a bitt with the officials letting him back down Clemson defenders without calling the flops the Tigers kept attempting to try and rack up fouls on the NC State big man, but a couple of reach-ins and swats sent him to the bench anyway.

In the end, the Tigers again proved to be a complete mismatch for the Wolfpack. The size of their front court coupled with Clemson’s depth and ability for seemingly every player to hit from beyond the arc proved an insurmountable challenge for the Wolfpack.

“Every team has a couple teams that it’s a bad matchup,” Keatts said. “If we were to play some of the teams on our schedule three times, we would be a bad matchup for people the way we play. I have to give them credit. It’s a really physical team, and they do a good job of getting into us on ball screens and being physical as we drive. They make everything tough. They sit in gaps.”

For the Wolfpack to have had any chance of beating Clemson, they needed to make shots — something they couldn’t make happen against the Tigers all season. 

“They made some tougher plays than we did, and then when you look at the second half, we just didn’t have it,” Keatts said. “We didn’t make the shots we normally make. I think we were 0-for-10 from the 3-point line.

Despite the disappointing loss, the Wolfpack are predicted to still make it into the NCAA Tournament as an 8 or 9 seed. 

“We don’t have any bad losses,” Keatts said of his team’s NCAA hopes. “We’ve got some really good wins. And when you look at us and this league and we’re 12-8 and won 23 games overall, I think we’ve put ourselves — if you compare our resume to a lot of teams, we put ourselves in a good situation.”

And the team is ready to prove it has more to give.

“We’ve gotta redeem ourselves,” Morsell said. “We’re hungry. This was our goal from the beginning of the season and we came up short, but we’d love to have another opportunity.”

But what’s perhaps the most frustrating part of it all for the Wolfpack is that there’s nothing more it can do. All they can do is wait and see what the committee ultimately decides come Sunday.