Pack Seeks To Move Past Painful Loss

NC State's players will meet with the local media this afternoon to discuss the upcoming ACC Tournament. They'll talk about how it's a fresh start, how difficult an opponent Florida State is, how they owe the Seminoles after losing to them at the RBC Center, how they'll use this week to put the gut-wrenching loss to Wake Forest on Sunday behind them.

The Wolfpack will also most likely be under instruction from coach Herb Sendek not to discuss the controversial Demon Deacons game, as was the policy following the setback on Sunday.

"I don't want to say anything right now," said sophomore guard Engin Atsur when asked about the no-call on his three-point attempt in the final 10 seconds. "I think the best thing to do is watch the tape and everything will be clear, I think."

"I think the replay is gonna have to speak for me tonight," Sendek said, adding later when pressed about another no-call, "You can watch the replay."

In a highly charged and emotional postgame locker room, observers noted how impressed they were about how the Pack handled questions about Chris Paul's cheap out and other matters. However, the tone of the responses yielded a lot more about the players' mindset.

"It was a good shot," Atsur said of Paul's game-winner, a surprising sarcastic tone entering his voice. "I don't know. He was lucky; that was his day. Congratulations for Wake Forest."

Of course, the State players know that free throws led to their downfall against the Deacs, with the Pack missing 13 of 22 from the charity stripe. After bouncing back in the middle of the season to become more effective from the free-throw line, the Wolfpack has allowed an early-season weakness to strike at the most inopportune time.

After leading the entire nation in free-throw shooting a season ago at a 79.9-percent clip (481-602), State slipped to just 69.4 percent (438-631) this regular season – despite shooting 29 more freebies, the Pack got 43 fewer points from the charity stripe. The numbers in conference play are even more telling: last year, NC State drilled an amazing 81.9 percent (263-321) of its free throws in ACC competition, while this year, that percentage plummeted to 69.7 (251-360). After leading the league in free-throw shooting for three straight years, the Wolfpack slipped to fourth this year.

When asked about the free-throw performance, the responses were usually accompanied by shaking heads and bewildered looks.

"I think it's something that we struggled with at the beginning of the season and came back to haunt us in the most important game of the season … That's the difference between the record we had last year and this year," said redshirt junior Ilian Evtimov. "If we would have made all the free throws we could have made this year as a team, we would have had a lot more wins than we have now and we wouldn't have been in this situation the first place."

"That's terrible. It's something we work on every day in practice, constantly," said redshirt junior Tony Bethel. "If you would have asked me [if I] think we would ever shoot that poor -- never, ever. We just couldn't knock them down tonight."

Hodge wasn't alone in his struggles from the line against the Deacs, but he took it the hardest. He told reporters that he let his teammates down in his final regular-season home game.

"I just … Guys are great free throw shooters on this team, and tonight, I just missed bad tonight," said Hodge, speaking haltingly and wiping away tears. "I just … missed my free throws.

"I can't explain, but I definitely work. I work every day to get better at them. This year, through my ups and downs, I stayed in that gym. That's one thing; you can write in the ground, hardwood, that ‘Julius Hodge stayed here.' That's my friend and I'm going to continue to work."

When told that Hodge felt he let the team down, Bethel took exception.

"Julius never lets us down. Just with his energy and his emotion and his love for the game, we thrive off that as a team," he said. "He didn't let us down tonight. It was a team thing; everybody missed free throws."

The players certainly know what's at stake in the ACC Tournament. Underlying the sense of an opportunity lost against Wake was a rising confidence in the Wolfpack players in talking about the conference tourney.

"I think that tonight we showed a lot of determination, a lot of grit, a lot of character," said Evtimov. "We played as hard as we possibly could and we have no regrets about our effort or anything like that … It's a really hard one to swallow.

"We've got to go out there and win [the tournament]. Period. One game at a time. If you keep winning, you can get up to four games and that's what we have to do. And we'll give it our best shot.

"Again, tonight just showed how determined we are to do whatever needs to be done. We just came up a little short."

"We're going to play really hard again," echoed Atsur, "and we're going to go there to win the championship."

The Pack will square off against the ‘Noles on Thursday afternoon, with a win possibly setting the stage for a rematch against the Demon Deacons. Paul was suspended for a game after punching Hodge, who said that Paul told him while he was on the ground, "I got you now."

"I just told my guys, ‘Let's go.' It definitely fired us up and we played way better in the second half," said Hodge. "For the game to end the way it did and for that incident to happen, the stage will definitely be set for the … ACC Tournament, to match up with them if we won."

Of course, Florida State comes first. After feeling like he let his team down on Senior Night, Hodge is eager for the opportunity to make amends.

"I just wanted to win the game. I wanted to win," said an emotional Hodge on Sunday night. "I tried in my mind to downplay the ceremony a little bit so I could stay focused on the game, but it was obvious that I was overjoyed. And this being my last game in the RBC, I played my hardest throughout the game and missed a couple of free throws I should have made. That happens, but we keep on working.

"We keep working; that's what we do. And I have faith in my teammates and we know that the stage is going to be set if we win our first game in the ACC Tournament -- which we feel we're more than capable to do -- that we're going to be able to do some things.

"I'm going to continue to be the hardest worker and eventually it's going to happen for us this year. We're still playing great basketball right now -- I think, in my opinion, the best in league right now -- and as long as we keep it up, it's going to be all right."

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