In hindsight, its easy to say the Pack should have fouled Duke on the Blue Devils final possession of the game.
Had the Pack fouled early in the shot clock, the worst-case scenario would have give them the ball down by three points with around 30 seconds left in the game. But Lowe was reluctant to foul because of the way Duke had shot free throws all game long, choosing instead to play good defense and try to get a stop even if that meant only having four or five seconds left once the Pack regained possession. Lowe had a plan in mind, one that didn't play out the way he had in mind over those final chaotic seconds.
"If they missed it we wanted to get it and get it up the floor then try to call a timeout," Lowe said. "Try to diagram something in the halfcourt a little further up instead of all the way down full court."
The first part went as planned, with a John Scheyer 3-pointer clanking off the rim and into the hands of Courtney Fells. The junior guard immediately turned up the court but was met by a double-team and had to give it off to McCauley near half court. By the time McCauley caught the ball there wasn't time for him to do anything but throw up a wild shot that never came close to going in.
"We were just trying to get the stop and then run back at them," Gonzalez said. "They missed but it was a long rebound and that took like 1-2 seconds off the clock. Then when we were running down coach Lowe tried to call timeout but I guess the referee didn't see it."
After the game, Lowe echoed Gonzalez's sentiments that he tried to call the timeout on the sidelines but wasn't granted the timeout by the officials.
"I was calling it," Lowe said. "The official was running by me, he turned and looked at me and I called timeout and I didn't get it."
Missed Free Throws, Defensive Lapses Allow Duke Comeback
NC State had a plan to defend the dynamic Duke offense.
For the first time all season, the Wolfpack played an extensive amount of zone, essentially a matchup zone that stifled the Blue Devils. When Duke put the ball on the floor, NC State wanted the Blue Devil players to have to finish at the basket over the Pack's large frontline, essentially forcing them to make two-point baskets while taking away the kickout 3-pointers by not helping down on the wings.
"The plan was to let them drive and do as best we can one-on-one and just stay on the shooters," Ferguson said. "They drive to kick it out, they kick it out more than they actually try to score."
For nearly 33 minutes, the Pack's game plan led to just eight made three-pointers for the Blue Devils and had State clinging to a lead. But the Wolfpack defense started making more mistakes, and the Devils started hitting their open looks. Over the final seven minutes of play, Duke hit five-of-eight 3-pointers, cutting a double-digits lead down quickly with its barrage of long-distance shots. Two from DeMarcus Nelson and one by Greg Paulus were direct results of the Wolfpack's wing players crashing down to help on drive instead of staying out and defending their zones.
"At crucial times, especially late in the second half, we sucked in and they were able to get those 3-balls," Sidney Lowe said.
Gavin Grant explained that even though the players knew not to leave shooters open on the perimeter, that sometimes basketball instinct took over and the Pack sagged its defense to help out on dribble drives.
"It's your instinct to protect the basket but in this game its kind of vice versa – you have to protect the 3-point line," said Grant.
But protecting the line wasn't the only reason the Pack lost a five-point lead with less than three minutes left to go in the game. Going into those last three minutes, the Pack had made 22-of-23 free throws in the game. In fact, the Wolfpack had been outstanding at the line for much of the game, as their first miss came late in the second half, a crucial miss on the front-end of a one-and-one by Marques Johnson. In its last three trips to the line, the Pack went 3-of-6 as Javi Gonzalez and Ben McCauley each missed key free-throws that could have sealed the game for the Pack.
When McCauley's final shot bounced harmlessly off the backboard and the junior collapsed in a heap of despair, it wasn't the final shot that caused him so much grief - it was his missed free-throw.
"I wasn't so much crushed about that missed shot. I was crushed about the free throws I missed earlier," McCauley said. "That's what kind of tore me apart."
Pack Finds Its Fire
The sound of Javi Gonzalez smacking away the hand of Duke's Nolan Smith could be heard through most of the RBC Center. As much as the Pack's play in the first few minutes, that smack sent the signal that maybe this game would be different.
Maybe in this game the Pack wouldn't fall apart for a stretch of 10 or more minutes, would keep its focus and intensity up for an entire 40 minute game. That's exactly what happened.
"We came to play today. The whole team," Ferguson said.
Let's be clear – no one in the NC State locker room was happy with the outcome of the game. A loss is still a loss, and there was no sugar-coating that fact. Least of all from Gavin Grant.
"You don't get an 'L' with an 'M' next to it for moral," Grant said. "You lost the game, play the next game."
But there's no doubt that after being blown out in five of its last six games, all losses, the Pack took some measure of comfort in its ability to stay with Duke for 40 minutes. It's the kind of confidence boost the Pack had to have over the last few weeks if there was to be any hope of righting the ship in time for the ACC Tournament.
"We can use this to show ourselves that we can put two halves together and go into the tournament to play the right way," Grant said. "We definitely played a hell of a game today. Coach K himself told me after the game that we deserved to win the game when he shook my hand."
Now NC State needs to come out and play with the same effort and intensity next weekend in Winston-Salem in the regular season finale against Wake Forest.