N.C. State led 10-0 a little more than three minutes into the game, then 19-4 by the 13:23 mark and 28-8 three minutes later. So ineffective was Tech’s defense, allowing wide-open 3-pointers and not challenging drives to the basket, that Pastner used two of his four timeouts less than seven minutes into the game, desperate to find a button to press to get his team going. The Wolfpack moved quickly up the floor after defensive stops, intent on getting chances in transition in order to not have to face the Jackets’ half-court defense.
“We had so many breakdowns defensively, and we just didn’t get it done, especially on the defensive end,” Pastner said. “We didn’t have toughness on the defensive end, we didn’t have our standard of who we are in that first half, and that’s just inexcusable, and that’s not something that I put up with, that I coach.”
The Jackets were down 51-25 at the half, having allowed the Wolfpack to make 8 of 14 3-point tries and to shoot 59.4% from the field overall (19-for-32). It was the most points the beleaguered Wolfpack had scored in a half all season and their largest lead too (at least until the second half began, when the margin peaked at 30 points).
While N.C. State was 8-for-14 from 3-point range through the first 20 minutes, the Jackets were 1-for-10.
Said N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, “That was probably our best half we’ve played, in the first half, where I thought we shared the ball with each other.”
N.C. State freshman guard Terquavion Smith had 18 points in the first half alone, making 4 of 5 3-point tries. He finished with 26 for the game, his ninth game of the season with 20-plus points.
What it means: The Jackets are now last in the ACC standings.
“I give a tremendous apology to the fans, especially that first half,” Pastner said. “Our defense failed us, and that’s just not our standard.”
Pastner was mystified at how his team played with such low energy. He said the team had energized practices Sunday and Monday in advance of Tuesday night’s game.
“And (Tuesday), our shootaround was energized and upbeat and guys were locked in and sharp,” he said.
The Jackets, who fell behind by 17 to Virginia on Saturday but closed the gap to two points in the second half before falling, had no such revival in them Tuesday against a team that entered the game ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense in league play.
“Honestly, it just felt like they were a step ahead in everything that they did,” Sturdivant said. “We’ve got to figure out how to start games better. We always tend to start off slow and then try to fight back. We do a great job fighting back, but sometimes it’s a little bit too late.”
Guard Michael Devoe led Tech with 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Center Rodney Howard registered his first double-double in ACC play, 14 points on 7-for-8 shooting to go with 11 rebounds. He scored on a series of dunks and layups, scoring three times on put-backs.
The Jackets shot 37.5% from the field, N.C. State’s season low in ACC play. The Wolfpack’s past four opponents had all shot better than 50%. The Jackets fell to 10-15 overall and 3-11 in the league and also replaced the Wolfpack (11-16, 4-12) in the ACC cellar. The possibility of Tech becoming the first ACC champion since Virginia in 1976 to finish the next season in last place grew larger Tuesday night.
“It’s very difficult, because we feel like we can compete with anybody in this league,” Sturdivant said. “We’ve just got to figure it out and put it together for 40 minutes. That’s our challenge, and that’s all we can worry about.”
In recent weeks, the Jackets have steadily added losses but shown glimpses of progress, such as the development of guards Deebo Coleman and Deivon Smith and the turnover generation of the defense. They held a 14-point lead at Miami last week before losing and defeated Clemson Feb. 5 at home in part by forcing 18 turnovers. The results have prompted Pastner to assert that the team was getting better despite the losses.
That progress may yet reveal itself again over the Jackets’ final six regular-season games, starting with a Saturday road game at Pittsburgh. But it was a difficult pitch to sell Tuesday.
“I can’t promise you we’re going to win games; that’s out of our control,” Pastner said. “But we will course correct about not having that first half, allow that to happen defensively.”