After coming out of intermission sputtering at Miami, NC State allowed No. 8 Notre Dame to rally from an 18-point deficit and from four points down in the final 30 seconds of regulation to steal a three-point win at PNC Arena.
It marked the third-straight game where the Wolfpack squandered a sizable lead (the Pack still defeated Florida State) and is a second-straight avoidable loss that, had State held on, would have looked good on its resume on Selection Sunday.
If NC State does not make the NCAA Tournament this season it will rue the lost opportunity of this past week. If the Pack is in the NIT, chances are a residual effect from the two tough losses will also be responsible. If Mark Gottfried is to lead his team to March Madness for a fourth consecutive year, the next three games are winnable and necessary to get back on track.
NC State will host an 11-8 Clemson squad tonight. The Wolfpack then hits the road for the next two games to battle against schools with losing records, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, before an eight-day break to prepare for No. 2 Virginia visiting Raleigh on February 11.
Gottfried has yet to lose in Atlanta but has lost the past two seasons in Winston-Salem, with both coming in equally agonizing fashion. Wake Forest would probably represent the toughest of the three upcoming games on that basis alone. However, the Demon Deacons, losers against the Wolfpack at PNC in December, are coming off a heartbreaking loss at Clemson and are struggling right now.
If NC State can sweep the upcoming three-game set, which is far from a given, the Wolfpack would face the Cavaliers sporting a 16-8 overall record and a 7-4 mark in the ACC.
All coaches, Gottfried included, will preach to their respective teams and fans that each contest is worth only one game and its value is not to be marginalized or inflated, and all of NC State's focus should be on the Tigers. However, momentum is a tangible thing and it can guide the Wolfpack off the beaten path if appropriate steps are not taken.
NC State has a propensity to take the foot off the pedal in games this season, with Wofford, Miami, and Notre Dame contests easily falling in the "should have won" category. The first matchup with Virginia in Charlottesville also was lamentable, as the Pack had a one-point lead on the road against the defending ACC Champions with nearly eight minutes remaining.
In several sports, NC State often produces excruciating losses only to answer with magical victories and vice versa. The Wolfpack will need to conjure up more of the fighting spirit that led it to victory when the chips were down over the next few games.
The last two losses could potentially prevent State from reaching the NCAA Tournament. A positive response will help negate that. It is on the Pack to show what kind of team they are and where they want to go.