"The only thing I will say about Julius Hodge's situation is that it was a team matter, and I'll leave it at that," coach Sendek stated following the game. "But there's no question he played one of his best games of the year.
"I think it's important to look at [our team] collectively. Obviously, we're better when Julius Hodge plays his best, but we can't put it all on his shoulders. Every player had to do his best in the role he plays."
The good news for the Pack was Hodge got Sendek's message. Once Hodge returned, he sparked the Pack and kept the team in the game with his play on both ends of the floor.In his first eight minutes on the floor, the 6-7 guard quickly led the team with 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting. He kept his momentum going in the second half and finished with 27 points and four steals in 28 minutes.
The senior didn't play until 10:03 in the first half, and up to that point, the Wolfpack was out of synch offensively and blunted Wake Forest's potent inside-outside attack by committing fouls. By halftime, the Deacons were 14-of-16 from the line and led 48-32.
The Wolfpack was hitting on all cylinders offensively throughout the first half, connecting on 59% of their field goal attempts, but 12 turnovers contributed to the 16-point deficit.
In the second half, Hodge took over for the Wolfpack. Scoring in transition or on nifty drives to the bucket, he torched the Deacs for 17 points in the half, but NC State was never able to fully recover from their early struggles.
Hodge led the Pack to within ten points with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game after an aggressive drive to the basket and a dunk off a steal. When forward Ilian Evtimov hit a three pointer at 7:28, the Pack cut Wake's lead to 68-63. However on their next possession, junior Cameron Bennerman missed the front end of a one-and-one and the Wolfpack couldn't get any closer, losing 86-75 to the Deacons.
Wake finished the game with five players in double figures, led by junior Justin Gray's 18. Center Eric Williams added 15 and 7 rebounds while reserve guard Taron Downey chipped in another 14 points. Downey hit several huge buckets throughout the contest for the Deacons.
"Taron Downey is having a terrific year," coach Sendek said. "He's one of the guys that I think is underrated when you consider all the press clippings some of the other guys have gotten. He's a tremendous weapon for them. He gives Wake another skilled player you have to deal with."
Hodge led NC State with 27 points, as they shot 56% from the field. However, it was the 20 turnovers and an astounding 25-point swing at the free throw line that cost the Wolfpack this game.
All is not lost for the Wolfpack, as they did welcome back Cameron Bennerman who returned from an elbow injury that sidelined him for three weeks.
Cam [Bennerman] came back Monday, so this is his fourth day back playing basketball," Sendek said. "He's an amazing guy. He's had injuries in the past and has had the capacity to come back amazingly well. He's an important player for us and it's good to have him back."
With four out of their final six games at home, a healthy Wolfpack squad could be just what NC State needs right now.
"This team is as healthy today as we were when we returned from New York in December," said Sendek. "That's when the wheels started falling off. One of the greatest challenges of the season has been handling the discontinuity you have in practice when guys are injured — having guys have to assume different roles. It's a challenge that's been there for the past six weeks. We're still working through it.
"It's not easy [keeping morale high] when you invest a great deal in what you do, but what's the alternative? You have to keep showing up to practice and working hard."
The Wolfpack drops to 13-10 overall and 3-7 in the ACC while Wake Forest is now 20-3 overall and 8-2 in the ACC.
NC State's next game will be Sunday night against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.