With State coming off one of the worst performances of coach Herb Sendek's tenure in a 63-45 loss to St. John's and senior Julius Hodge sidelined with a sprained ankle, the Pack started three new players in its home tilt vs. West Virginia, with redshirt junior Ilian Evtimov, junior Cameron Bennerman and freshman Andrew Brackman getting starting nods. Evtimov and Brackman sparked the Wolfpack at times, combining for 35 points and 11 rebounds, but NC State (10-3) allowed the Mountaineers (10-0) to shoot 58.8 percent (30-51) from the floor and 55.6 percent (10-18) from three-point range to lose its second straight game and third in five outings, 82-69.
After a three-pointer by the visitors started the game, the Pack responded with a 7-0 run. The Wolfpack would lead by as many as nine early on, 16-7, but West Virginia put together a 21-4 run top open up an 11-point advantage, 39-28. Back-to-back three-pointers by senior Levi Watkins and sophomore Engin Atsur closed the gap to seven points, 43-36, at intermission.
Brackman kept State in the game in the first half with 12 points and four boards, but the Mountaineers drained 58.6 percent (17-29) from the field and 50 percent (6-12) from beyond the arc. West Virginia also outscored NC State 10-0 on fast-break points and 13-3 in bench points.
A three-pointer from senior Jordan Collins and a layup inside by Bennerman brought the Wolfpack to within just two, 43-41, to open the second half, but West Virginia countered with a 9-0 run. Sendek and his staff had some spirited exchanges with referee Michael Kitts, who rang Sendek up for a technical in New York on Thursday, during this stretch, but the Pack went scoreless for 4:15. A three-point play by Collins brought the Pack within seven at 62-55, but the Mountaineers answered every run with timely baskets. The Wolfpack scored only a single basket in a stretch of 5:09 before a couple of late, meaningless three-pointers from freshman Gavin Grant and Atsur.
The sight of Hodge on the bench out of uniform seemed to catch both teams by surprise. Bennerman said that he thought Hodge was joking around initially, but Collins told the media that Hodge hardly practiced yesterday. West Virginia coach John Beilein said that he and his staff heard "rumors" that Hodge wouldn't play when they arrived at the RBC Center. Sendek also revealed that Bennerman had a temperature of 103 degrees and missed practice yesterday, while Bethel is still struggling mightily with the flu.
The Pack got 19 points and eight rebounds from Brackman, 16 points and two steals from Evtimov, and 15 points on just eight shots from Collins, but couldn't overcome a balanced West Virginia attack. The Mountaineers placed six players in double-figures, led by Mike Gansey's 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and four steals, and also got six blocked shots from D'or Fisher. West Virginia also got to the free-throw line more than the Pack (16-14) and won the battle of the benches, 26-8. As Bennerman noted, the Mountaineers gave State a "dose of our own medicine," using backdoor cuts to notch 16 layups and employing crisp ball movement to get free for open looks from beyond the three-point line.
Besides the re-emergence of Brackman and Evtimov, the good news for NC State was vast improvement in rebounding. The Wolfpack corralled 14 offensive caroms and outrebounded the visitors, 33-29. However, the cold shooting experienced in New York continued, with State shooting just 39.3 percent (24-61) from the field and 32.1 percent (9-28) from beyond the arc, including 37.5 percent (12-32) and 21.4 percent (3-14), respectively, in the second half. The ailing Bethel and Bennerman struggled, combining to score five points on 2-for-13 shooting from the floor and 0-for-7 from three-point range.
NC State receives a much-needed week off before starting conference play with a trip to Miami next Sunday, Jan. 9. Sendek said that the first order of business for his squad was getting healthy, then focusing on improvement. If the Pack can get Hodge, Bethel and Bennerman back to full speed and Brackman and Evtimov can build on impressive performances, the team should be able to shake an ugly stretch of play and get back on track in the ACC.