...yet so far away.
(apologies for the Hall 'N Oates reference)
NC State 86
Man, there's nothing that hurts more than losing a home game to Duke by one point. Especially when you've led most of the game and--after shooting ridiculously well from the free throw line the first 3/4 of the game--you suddenly go cold from the free throw line trying to seal the deal.
Three-for-six down the stretch when Duke was charging like a roided-up bull just didn't get it done. You have to play nearly perfect in all phases of the game to pull off that kind of upset. We did it in 1998 against Carolina in the Dean Dome; we didn't do it today.
Two of those three crucial misses were on Javier Gonzalez, but it's tough to get too down on the guy after his gutty performance today. Ben McCauley's 19 points bested his 18 by one, but he had three assists to only one turnover against a Duke defense known for its tenacious D. He repeatedly brought the ball up the court against tough pressure and didn't fold. Kudos to you, young man...here's hoping you use this game to propel you into a productive offseason.
Tracy Smith and Trevor "Turd" Ferguson had good games again. Smith made the most of his 22 minutes in a starting role, scoring 14 on 4-5 shooting and a perfect 6-6 from the line. Turd chipped in with another nine, giving him 37 over the last three games. These two could be the cornerstone, along with Gonzalez, of the rebuilding project Sidney faces next season if Hickson leaves for the pros.
Speaking of Hickson, he pitched in eight in 18 minutes, along with five rebounds. He just hasn't taken over games over the back half of this season like I thought he would. I'm not sure if it's freshman fatigue or just an increased level of competition, but his resume for an early exit at this point looks pretty sparse. I think he needs to return for another year to get stronger physically and more mature mentally. He still breaks down defensively too much in trying to crush an opponent on his way to the basket. Once he learns how to play a tough defensive game within the overall defensive scheme, the blocks and highlight-reel defensive plays will come to him.
I was encouraged to see State play some matchup zone tonight. It kept Duke from beating our players off the dribble repeatedly, preventing the drive-n-kick threes that break a team's will. And offensively, the team played well enough throughout most of the game to get even ol' coach K to play a little zone to slow down our attack.
But at the end of the day, an "L" is an "L." As good as I felt about certain parts of this game, the inability to close it out, when up as much as 13 in the second half and up eight with under 4:00 to go, makes this a tough loss to swallow. It's indicative of how young and inexperienced our guards are. While Duke was surging late in the game, we turtled up and turned off the killer instinct that earned us the lead for most of the game. It's been shown time and time again--when you play not to lose, you almost invariably do. And the two misses by Gonzalez late in the game were probably a function of some freshmen nerves, as well.
Give Duke a ton of credit. They made every big shot and free throw they needed down the stretch to win it. They are an embodiment of their tough-as-nails coach. Beating them is no small feat.
The question for this team now is, "What do you take from this game?" Will they respond to the almost-coulda-shoulda that came as a result of their much higher effort level? Or, will their spirit--already fragile at this point--crumble in their final games of the season?
We shall see...
Saturday, March 1, 2008
at 8:46 PM
...yet so far away.