Terry Henderson and Maverick Rowan hit the game's first two shots, each a three-pointer, and NC State looked like it may be able to replicate the road success it had at Duke in its last outing.
That feeling was short-lived.
Donovan Mitchell scored 21 of his 26 points in the first half to give Louisville a working margin. The Cardinals used a 21-3 run to take control of the game after the Wolfpack's first two baskets en route to a resounding 85-60 home victory over NC State Sunday. At one point, Mitchell had 21 points while the Wolfpack as a team had only 24.
Louisville is a team with plenty of good scorers but not great ones, so Mitchell's early performance was atypical in more than one way. It appeared to be more of a reflection on NC State than anything else.
"Mitchell played terrific," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said. "I thought their team played well, and they obviously played a lot better than we did.We had no energy. Zero. It's frustrating. I tried everything I could in the last couple of days to get us off the mat a little bit, and we came out and seemed lifeless. We had no zip."
Mitchell put Louisville on his back early and while NC State had the deficit down to eight or nine points at different times in the first half the Cardinals were never seriously threatened.
The Wolfpack began the game in a zone due to the supposed lack of three-point shooting, a theory Louisville quickly put to rest with nine treys in the first half. Gottfried felt tactics however was not the real problem.
NC State fought back at Duke to win despite trailing for over 30 minutes in the contest. The Wolfpack was down 12 in the first half and nine late in the game but never seemed flustered or lacking in energy. It was much different against the Cardinals.
"The X's and O's part of the game was irrelevant to me," Gottfried said. "It was how much energy and how slow we were, with no zip. The answer wasn't let's do this or that, the answer was we have to play with more energy and we couldn't generate it. We tried and at halftime I thought we'd come out in the second half with a little more. We seemed to be playing with cement boots on. We couldn't move."
Dennis Smith Jr. was a big reason NC State pulled off the upset earlier in the week and the more the Wolfpack plays the more apparent it becomes that as the freshman guard goes, so does the team. When Smith excels, it adds energy and confidence to the others.
"The Dennis Smith that we saw a couple of days ago and we've seen this year, he had very little of that," Gottfried said. "It wasn't just him. Maverick [Rowan] was slow, Terry [Henderson] was slow, Malik [Abu] was slow, Omer [Yurtseven] was slow. I could go down the line. We had no zip. We had no zip in our huddles. We just seemed that we didn't have very much in the tank. Dennis struggled and he's had spectacular games all year but today we couldn't get him going."
NC State has reached the halfway point of the conference season. The Wolfpack, 14-8 overall, is 3-6 in ACC play with home games against Syracuse and Miami looming. There will be no respites for the team in the upcoming weeks.
The route to a return to the NCAA Tournament will not be easy. On Sunday, the team seemed to want to avoid the drudgery that leads to victory at all cost, which is the exact opposite path it needs to take to be successful.
"We have to play with a lot more zip than we played with today," Gottfried said. "Hopefully we can flush that out of our system. It's frustrating after the game we had at Duke, but we were slow to everything.
"I think we just wanted to find the easiest route today and that's frustrating."