Sloppy NC State flounders at home against Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s Lynn Kidd dunks over North Carolina State’s Dennis Parker Jr. during the second half an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. (The News & Observer via AP / Kaitlin McKeown)

In an uncharacteristic appearance, the NC State Wolfpack had a dud defensively, as the team surrendered 51 points in the second half alone to lose 84-78 to the Virginia Tech Hokies Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena.

No matter how you spin it, it’s a bad loss for the Wolfpack as coming into the game, the Hokies were just 2-4 in ACC play and 0-4 on the road this season.

The Wolfpack had been steady defensively through the opening 20 minutes and even continued to force turnovers at a high rate – the Hokies committed 20 turnovers through the game – but the team came out of the gate in the second half with a diminished intensity and in turn, they saw the game start to slip away.

“Our defense in the second half was not very good,” said NC State coach Kevin Keatts. “You look at the way we played in the first half, look at what we did, we forced 20 turnovers, we did some good things but I just didn’t think we did a good job defending. This particular team hasn’t been one of those groups that gives up straight-line drives and guys were able to get all the way to the rim on us. Just not good enough. 

“Our defense has been who we are. You pick up the stat sheet and you’re going to say, ‘Dang the coach is complaining about defense and they forced a team into 20 turnovers.’ That doesn’t happen much. Our calling card with this team has been that the defense has saved us. At Notre Dame, we didn’t score, the defense saved us. In the Wake Forest game, defense saved us. We’d been really good at it.”

It was especially tough down the stretch, as the Pack’s defense collapsed with the Hokies going 9-for-9 from the field over the final seven minutes to essentially seal it away.

Sean Pedulla and Hunter Cattoor, who combined for 32 points on the day, picked up 20 of their points during that stretch.

“I thought early in the second half, we let those guys get comfortable and once they got comfortable, they started playing really good basketball,” Keatts said. “Those two guys were on the top of our scouting report and they drove us. We shouldn’t be getting beat off the dribble and those sorts of things. That’s the disappointment. That we haven’t had many games defensively where I can tell you we weren’t very good, but in that particular half, we weren’t very good.”

The effort was there, as NC State never stopped the full court press in the final minutes of the game, but it simply wasn’t enough due to their inability to get a stop.

“I didn’t think we were aggressive as we were in the first half,” Keatts said. “We were that aggressive late in the second half with two minutes on the clock. When it looked like we had a chance to lose a game, we ramped it up.”

In addition, the Pack struggled to handle the ball, having 18 turnovers of their own, and they are now averaging 14 turnovers a game over their last four.

“The one thing lately that we got to clean up that we haven’t done earlier in the season is that we’re turning the ball over,” Keatts said. “It’s weird because the entire season, we’ve been taking care of the basketball and now in the last couple of games, we haven’t. We have to get back to it. We’re still winning the turnover battle, but we were winning it by such a large margin. Even though they turned it over 20 times, I don’t think we capitalized on all of those. I think we gave it back a little bit.”

Despite forcing 20 turnovers, the Wolfpack only managed 25 points off of those turnovers.

It was also a tough game for NC State’s bigs as DJ Burns, Mo Diarra and Ben Middlebrooks combined for just 16 points on 7-for-19 shooting, and overall, the Pack had just nine points off the bench.

“As well as Ben played against Wake Forest, I thought he was just okay today, so we didn’t get that uptick which we normally get from our bench,” Keatts said. “I thought Mo had his moments. I thought Micah was okay. I didn’t think we got the great injection of energy and play off our bench that we got in the last few games.”

The shot selection wasn’t great for NC State either as the team went 6-for-19 from deep. Unlike against Wake Forest when they shied away from the 3-ball when it wasn’t going, they just kept pulling up despite the lack of drops.

“I give those guys a lot of freedom, so I’m not going to say, ‘Oh we took so many bad shots,’” Keatts said. “I don’t look at it that way. We scored 78 points. That’s enough to win a game, but we gave up 84 and that’s not good.”

Up next for the Wolfpack is a two-game road swing with stops against Virginia and Syracuse before returning home Jan. 30 to host Miami.