As I departed the RBC Center following N.C. State’s 61-60 loss to Virginia, ahead of the rest of the media corps still rapping out their copy inside the bowels of the arena, the most jarring yet poignant image of the evening was the sight of Johnson as he walked out at the same time. Johnson was barely recognizable, his eyes shrouded beneath a light grey hoodie, his lips pursed and not passing a word. Accompanied by a small group of friends and/or family, he climbed into the passenger seat of a waiting vehicle and rode off, surely contemplating not just the heart-wrenching defeat but his subpar performance: 0-6 from the field, 0-4 from the free throw line and a key possession late in the second half when he missed three straight shots, including two open layups.
Ten minutes after this encounter, Johnson tweeted this missive under his otherwise cheeky handle, @SupermanJohnson: “All the praise to you Lord. Lord I’m at rock bottom. Hear me Lord Im (sic) crying out for you! I try to be strong but I am Weak. Help me Lord."
Johnson’s disconsolation speaks to the fact that these are still young men—some not long out of high school—being asked to grapple with adult-size pressures and expectations. It also conveys the importance of this loss to the Wolfpack. Virginia (17-3, 4-2 ACC) came to Raleigh ranked 19 in the AP Top 25, and a win at home over the Cavaliers was crucial to N.C. State’s long-range postseason prospects, especially coming off Thursday’s drubbing in Chapel Hill. Instead, the Wolfpack (15-7, 4-3 ACC) have now lost three out of seven conference games, including upset home defeats to UVA and Georgia Tech.
Mere statistics do not convey the reasons behind the Wolfpack’s loss to Virginia. Indeed, N.C. State made four more field goals and outscored the Cavs in the paint (30-18), off second-chance points (17-7) and on fast breaks. Most astounding is that the Pack out-rebounded Virginia 42-25, led by Richard Howell, who snagged 18 boards to go with 11 points, his eighth double-double this season.
However, the Cavs knocked down five more 3-pointers, made four more free throws and—in a familiar refrain for Pack supporters—outscored State’s bench 10-2. Meanwhile the Wolfpack, the second-ranked free-throw shooting team in the ACC, was a woeful 12-21 from the line.
Cataloging all the key moments in this loss would be a futile enterprise: each creates its own ripple effect altering the impact, if not existence of everything coming after it. Still, several events/observations bear noting:
• Scott Wood’s 3-pointer from the corner with 35 seconds left in the game cut Virginia’s lead—once as great as 10 midway through the second half—to a single point and sent the 17,027 fans in attendance into a state of raucous delirium. However, before that basket Wood was only 2-10 from the field, including 1-7 from beyond the arc. And, his defense was lacking all night.
“It’s just my bad defense,” says Wood in response to why teams seem to shoot so well from long-range against the Wolfpack. “I’m serious. I didn’t play good defense in the first half [tonight] and [Sammy] Zeglinski got going a little bit, and I think that hurt us.”
• Twice in the second half, potentially pivotal baskets by C.J. Leslie—who paced the Pack with 17 points—were wiped away due to questionable over-the-back fouls called on Leslie. The first came with 6:31 left and N.C. State behind by eight. Instead of cutting the lead to six, Joe Harris’ two resulting free throws pushed the Cavs lead to 10. Then at the 3:14 mark and State behind six, another whistle against Leslie gave Scott two free throws and Virginia an eight-point advantage.
Indeed, the most astounding statistic of the game is that Virginia’s last made field goal—a 3-pointer by Joe Harris—came with 8:20 left in the game. The Cavs’ last nine points were all free throws, a fact that did not escape N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried’s notice in the post-game press conference, during which he also noted that Virginia went to the line 19 times in the second half alone (none of them the result of intentional/intended fouls by the Wolfpack).
• And, then there’s the last play of the game. After Wood’s 3-pointer cut the lead to one, Zeglinski missed a jumper and C.J. Williams gathered the rebound with 12 seconds on the clock. Lorenzo Brown pushed the ball to midcourt, where Gottfried called time-out with 7.8 seconds remaining.
The propriety of this time-out was debated after the game by those who wondered whether it was a good idea to allow the ACC’s best defense a chance to prepare and set themselves for the final play. And, in fact, Virginia contained Brown during the ensuing play, forcing him into a long-range heave that failed to find iron as the final buzzer sounded.
Still, Gottfried correctly noted that his young club had trouble finding their offensive rhythm throughout the game, and he does not second-guess his decision.
“We thought we could get Lorenzo to turn the corner at the top of the key with Scott in the far corner,” said Gottfried. “It’s my opinion that [Lorenzo] got bumped pretty hard on the dribble, but you roll with that and move on.”
“It’s tough,” says Williams. “You never want to lose, and to lose in that fashion you go back and think about each individual play you could have done better that may have helped you win, from the beginning to the end.”
N.C. State must now go on the road for three of their next four league contests. Still, their next three games are against teams with losing conference records: Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The Wolfpack need to win these matches because the three following games are against Duke, Florida State and North Carolina, in that order.
On this night, however, the Wolfpack are left seeking the solace of teammates, coaches and just maybe a higher power.
“My heart hurts for my team, because I thought my team played their hearts out,” Gottfried says. “They laid everything they had on the line, and I feel bad for them.”