WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- NC State had to keep winning to give itself a better chance of getting yet another at-large NCAA Tournament bid under head coach Mark Gottfried -- its fourth in a row.
But on this night in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest (11-12, 3-7 ACC) had other ideas. The Demon Deacons went up 51-30 at the half and seemingly couldn't miss, and while NC State mounted a furious second-half comeback that cut the deficit to five at one point, it wasn't enough as Wake took the game 84-88 in a game that wasn't really that close.
NC State (14-10, 5-6 ACC) has now lost four of its last five games -- two to teams with a bad RPI -- and the odds seem very slim for them to make the tournament without winning the ACC Tournament, or beating every opponent left on its schedule.
Three-Point Take 1. In what might be a metaphor for its season, NC State's second-half effort was too little, too late
As Wake Forest drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer in the first half -- the Deacs, normally a poor shooting team from distance, were 9 of 15 -- NC State junior guard Trevor Lacey could only shake his head.
The Wolfpack have now trailed by significant margins in the first half of two of its last three games. Against Clemson at home, it was a 25-2 run allowed that put the Wolfpack in a 19-point hole (they'd trail by as much as 23 in the first half).
In Winston-Salem on this night, the final 4:40 of the half turned what was a big hole into a cavern as NC State allowed Wake -- already up by 10 points -- to go on a 15-2 run to close out the half and put them in a 21-point hole at the break.
Like the Clemson game, NC State would trail by more. But also like the Clemson game, when the Wolfpack got back to within a possession multiple times in the second half, they didn't have enough. They got down by 24 in this one with 13:33 to go, but outscored the Deacs 44-24 after that to very nearly tie things up, even getting to within three with 11 seconds left.
Perhaps just like this season, though, those comeback efforts were too little, too late.
"I thought they played really hard. We just had too big of a hill to climb," Gottfried said.
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"You never want to lose. All of them are tough. For what we're trying to do, we're not helping ourselves by losing," Lacey said. "So all of them are tough. We don't need any more (losses). We've just got to keep fighting and keep winning and not get down on each other."
NC State has good opportunities left for good wins. They host Virginia next Wednesday, travel to Louisville that Saturday and go to North Carolina at the end of February. But they have to win the games in between, too, and that's proven to be a bit trickier.
That's been the real head-scratcher with this team -- beat Duke at home, give North Carolina and Notre Dame a great game; heck, even play Virginia tough on the road -- and then lose or play poorly against the so-called bottom teams in the ACC.
"I don't feel like we came into this game like, 'Oh, we're going to be down like this.' We knew what we had to do," Lacey said. "We knew what we wanted to do. It just didn't happen. We didn't expect them to shoot the ball that well. It kind of hurts when you play good defense and they make tough shots."
NC State doesn't have much time left to regroup. They've got to figure something out, and fast.
But just like it has been in the last few games, it may be too late anyway. But it's not too late to build for the future.
"Everybody is kind of low," NC State sophomore point guard Cat Barber said. "But it's not the last game we play. I just tried to pick everybody up and just tell everybody that we're going to be all right -- just get back in the gym and keep working."
2. Wake Forest's freshmen outplayed NC State's freshmen on this night, and that's big for the young Deacs moving forward
NC State's freshmen have been valuable this season at times, but their youth was on full display in this one. Abdul Malik-Abu (the starting forward for NC State), and twin wings Caleb and Cody Martin combined to shoot 4 of 18 from the field (0 of 4 from the outside) and score 10 points. Abu, in particular, struggled with two points on 1 of 7 shooting.
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