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N.C. State basketball is focused on improving after losing ACC opener to Louisville

·4 min read

N.C. State guard Terquavion Smith won three straight titles at Farmville Central High School.

Losing was something he wasn’t accustomed to.

After a big welcome to the ACC moment against Louisville — 17 points — Smith was in no mood to boast. The Cardinals hit two 3-pointers in the final 1:31, both as the shot clock neared zero, to escape Raleigh with a 73-68 win over N.C. State.

There were many bright spots for the Wolfpack in a losing effort, but Smith wasn’t having it.

“I don’t come from a losing background,” said Smith, who went 76-2 in his final three years of high school. “I’m not mad, but I’m kind of tight right now.”

Just a freshman, Smith’s feelings probably speak for the entire team. For the second time this week, N.C. State was down big, but battled back to take the lead. Only this time the Wolfpack couldn’t seal the deal. The team played excellent defense for most of the shot clock on those two big 3-pointers, but Cardinals guard Noah Locke, then forward Matt Cross, had prayers answered with their backs against the wall.

N.C. State’s Terquavion Smith (0) heads to the basket during Louisville’s 73-68 victory over N.C. State at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday Dec. 4, 2021.
N.C. State’s Terquavion Smith (0) heads to the basket during Louisville’s 73-68 victory over N.C. State at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday Dec. 4, 2021.

All the Wolfpack did to get back in the game was gone in an instant, as the Cardinals hit their final two triples, after going 6-26 leading up to the last few moments. After trailing by 14 at the half, N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts harped on doing the little things to get back in the game. One of those things was boxing out to secure rebounds. Louisville, like most teams the Pack has faced this season, won the battle on the boards, 46-30, including 14 offensive rebounds which led to 10 second-chance points.

“Just doing the little things like boxing out,” Smith said about the point of emphasis for the second half. “Getting loose balls and not letting them outplay us and play harder.”

N.C. State played hard, erasing a 12-point lead. Once the Wolfpack went ahead in the second half, it looked like another classic performance by the latest version of the Cardia Pack. But the Pack missed four of its final five shots from the floor. N.C. State’s last made field goal came at the 3:02 mark, a 3-pointer from Jericole Hellems, who finished with a game-high 18 points. Not even his bounce back performance could help the Pack overcome the ACC opener slipping away.

“It’s tough,” Hellems said. “Nobody likes to lose, especially knowing this is the ACC tip off and we are kind of heading in the right direction. But you take from what we got from the game and move on knowing we have another game to play.”

As much fight as N.C. State showed by getting back in the game, Keatts would rather not get a reputation for being a team that gets down early and makes things interesting late.

“I think it’s great that we are fighting,” Keatts said. “In an ideal situation I don’t want to be down 14 just to prove that we can come back. But this team had no quit in it.”

What exactly did the Pack do to get back in the contest?

“We got out in transition, we made shots,” Keatts said. “We drove the basketball, we got to the free throw line.”

The good version of N.C. State showed as its scored 10 points in transition (seven in the second half) and shot 43.8 percent from the field in the second half. In the opening 20 minutes the Pack was 10 of 28 from the floor (35.7 percent).

N.C. State also got 20 points in the paint in the second half, opposed to just 10 in the first. What Keatts didn’t get was bench points. In 133 games with Keatts as the coach, the bench averaged 23.1 points per game. They got zero on Saturday, a first under Keatts.

Smith would have provided that bench spark, but he was inserted into the starting five in place of Casey Morsell. He had quite the welcoming to ACC play, but it wasn’t enough. It was a good sign, but Keatts isn’t in the business of moral victories.

“We’re working our butts off,” Keatts said. “Some of our guys are getting better and it just shows that we can compete with anybody in the country, even under our circumstances. We’ll continue to get better, but my expectation every game is to try to win.”

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