There was a ton of fight in the Wolfpack. The fact that the game went down the waning seconds, or the final two-tenths of a second to be precise, reflects well on NC State.
Unfortunately for State, moral victories do not earn NCAA berths. The Pack will have something to prove as it takes a six-day sojourn into Florida beginning on Saturday in Tallahassee.
The North Carolina Hangover has struck State often over the years, win or lose. In this case, it will be up to Gottfried to find a balance between not letting the loss to the Tar Heels linger while also maintaining the confidence gained from battling North Carolina after an impressive win against second-ranked Duke on Sunday.
The defeat marked the second straight season NC State was left to wonder how, just enough, could go wrong against its biggest rival at home.
For UNC, Marcus Paige was up to his old tricks again.
The career-high of 35 points from last season’s encounter in Raleigh is still fresh in the minds of Wolfpack faithful and, while he did not reach that mark on Wednesday, his 23 points and nine assists were lethal. Paige cannot seem to miss from behind the three-point line against NC State, literally. He connected on all five attempts from behind the arc, and each felt like a dagger to the heart of NC State.
If Paige’s scoring seemed like déjà vu then J.P. Tokoto’s athleticism in the first half was also repetitive.
The wiry wing hurt NC State during the first half last season with offensive rebounds that inevitably would be dunked home for critical second-chance points. He would finish that game with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, playing a huge part in North Carolina’s one-point overtime win.
On Wednesday, the junior did again early for the Tar Heels, but it was his defense on Trevor Lacey that caused problems for the Wolfpack. Lacey went 1-7 from the floor in the first half and seemed to be somewhat frustrated.
He finished with 19 points but did the bulk of his work at the free throw line, hitting all 10 attempt... including the one he tried to deliberately miss late in the game.
"They pushed me around and I got a little frustrated and started to look for calls when I should have just kept playing," said Lacey. "In the second half I put that behind and kept playing.
"[Tokoto] did a good job. I feel like I still got my shots. I just didn't make a couple of shots I normally make. It can go both ways. It can be I'm making shots or it's good defense. He played good defense."
NC State will lament the ease with which North Carolina scored inside. Gottfried spoke of the 17 baskets inside by the Carolina frontcourt. They certainly had an impact and it was a mitigating factor in the Tar Heels opening up a 12-point lead with less than eight minutes remaining.
Kyle Washington and Abdul-Malik Abu neutralized the Carolina frontcourt superiority to an extent by combining for 26 points and 12 rebounds. However, BeeJay Anya spent the game in foul trouble and Lennard Freeman was ineffective in limited action.
"I thought the difference in the game was the seventeen field goals by their three post guys, between [Isaiah] Hicks, [Kennedy] Meeks and Brice [Johnson]," said Gottfried. "We need to be much better defensively inside, and it seems like we have been at times, but tonight I thought that was probably the biggest difference."
The loss dropped NC State to 12-6 on the season, 3-2 in the ACC. Postseason berths, both in terms of seeding in the ACC Tournament and a potential fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, is still tenuous.
The Pack has to rebound, making sure the loss to North Carolina is not a harbinger of things to come and State does not come up just short in March.
The next opportunity is just hours away.