RALEIGH — NC State had an uncharacteristically bad defensive game, including allowing 51 second half points, in an 84-78 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena.
It was a bad loss for a Wolfpack team that was starting to gain some traction in poll voting but lost to an opponent that came into the game winless in four road games.
NC State’s defense was steady in the opening 20 minutes and forced the Hokies into plenty of mistakes, but the Wolfpack’s intensity diminished in the second half, and the Hokies (11-7, 3-4 ACC) were able to hold on for the road win.
“Our defense in the second half was not very good,” said NC State coach Kevin Keatts. “You look at the way we played in the first half, look at what we did, we forced 20 turnovers (in the game), we did some good things, but I just didn’t think we did a good job defending. … Just not good enough. Our defense has been who we are.
“You pick up the stat sheet and you’re going to say, ‘Dang, the coach is complaining about defense and they forced a team into 20 turnovers.’ That doesn’t happen much. Our calling card with this team has been that the defense has saved us. At Notre Dame, we didn’t score, the defense saved us. In the Wake Forest game, defense saved us. We’d been really good at it.”
It was especially rough down the stretch as the Hokies went 9 for 9 from the field over the final seven minutes to put the game away.
Sean Pedulla and Hunter Cattoor, who combined for 32 points on the day, picked up 20 of their points during the final push.
“I thought early in the second half we let those guys get comfortable, and once they got comfortable, they started playing really good basketball,” Keatts said. “Those two guys were on the top of our scouting report and they drove us. We shouldn’t be getting beat off the dribble and those sorts of things. That’s the disappointment. That we haven’t had many games defensively where I can tell you we weren’t very good, but in that particular half, we weren’t very good.”
NC State (13-5, 5-2 ACC) continued its trademark full-court press into the final minutes of the game, but the Wolfpack were unable to stop the hot-shooting Hokies.
“I didn’t think we were aggressive as we were in the first half,” Keatts said. “We were that aggressive late in the second half with two minutes on the clock. When it looked like we had a chance to lose a game, we ramped it up.”
In addition, the Wolfpack had 18 turnovers of their own — in their last four games, they are averaging 14 turnovers.
“The one thing lately that we’ve got to clean up that we haven’t done earlier in the season is that we’re turning the ball over,” Keatts said. “It’s weird because the entire season we’ve been taking care of the basketball and now in the last couple of games, we haven’t. We have to get back to it. We’re still winning the turnover battle, but we were winning it by such a large margin. Even though they turned it over 20 times, I don’t think we capitalized on all of those. I think we gave it back a little bit.”
It was a tough game offensively for the Wolfpack. NC State managed only 25 points off Virginia Tech’s 20 turnovers, and post players DJ Burns, Mo Diarra and Ben Middlebrooks combined for just 16 points on 7-for-19 shooting. The bench contributed just nine points.
“As well as Ben played against Wake Forest, I thought he was just OK today, so we didn’t get that uptick which we normally get from our bench,” Keatts said.
NC State also continued to struggle from 3-point range, making 6 of 19 on Saturday. When the long-range shots didn’t fall against Wake Forest, the Wolfpack stopped shooting 3s. Against Virginia Tech, NC State kept shooting them with little success.
“I give those guys a lot of freedom, so I’m not going to say, ‘Oh we took so many bad shots,’” Keatts said. “I don’t look at it that way. We scored 78 points. That’s enough to win a game, but we gave up 84 and that’s not good.”
The Wolfpack has the first of two straight road games Wednesday at Virginia before traveling to Syracuse for a game next Saturday. NC State returns home Jan. 30 to host Miami.