by Neil Morris
RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—When Greivis Vasquez tossed in a meaningless three-point basket as time expired on Maryland’s 71-60 victory over N.C. State in Raleigh Sunday evening, a cascade of boos rained down from the already less-than-capacity crowd still remaining in the RBC Center. The shot left Wolfpack guard Javier Gonzalez fuming that such a stunt could get Vasquez “punched in the face.” And, while Coach Sidney Lowe said his team should have played defense through the final buzzer, he added, “You don’t forget it.”
In truth, the tempest over Vasquez’s trifecta is a textbook case of displacement. A crushing disappointment was etched across the faces of Wolfpack players and coaches after the loss. Coming into the game, only three ACC teams had fewer home losses this season than N.C. State (North Carolina, Duke, and Wake Forest). Three straight victories to close out the regular season would have given the Wolfpack an 8-8 conference record and virtually assured them a postseason tournament bid.
Instead, N.C. State (15-12, 5-9 ACC) played with a mixture of confusion and lethargy.
The Terrapins’ pressure zone defense kept the Wolfpack off-kilter most of the game, forcing N.C. State into 18 turnovers and goading them into 19 three-point attempts (converting only five), which accounted for 41 percent of the team’s total field goal attempts. At the same time, the Wolfpack only managed four steals the entire game. Moreover, although the boisterous fans in attendance urged on their Pack, the announced attendance of 13,835 was the lowest for any N.C. State ACC home game this season (perhaps caused by impending winter weather that, however, did not fully arrive until after the game).
“It's been a few games since I came to the locker room and felt we didn’t play as well as we could have,” said Lowe. “[Maryland] played well and a little smarter than we did. It's a tough loss."
"They ran their offense perfectly,” said Ben McCauley, who finished with 10 points and six rebound. “They took good shots, took care of the ball, and when you do that you're going to score some points. And, we didn't do that. Our bread and butter is going inside, and when we stopped doing that, we turned the ball over and took bad shots."
Ultimately, however, N.C. State simply could not overcome Vasquez, who finished with a game-high 33 points and chipped-in five assists. After leading by nine points in the first half, the Wolfpack closed to within a single point at halftime. Tracy Smith’s three-point play gave N.C. State its first lead with 9:15 left to play in the game. But, with the game tied at 52-52, a three-pointer by Vasquez started a game-ending 19-8 run and put Maryland (18-10, 7-7 ACC) ahead to stay. A basket from Gonzalez cut the lead to four with 58 seconds remaining, but Vasquez again answered with a basket of his own to seal the win.
"I never felt that we were going to give the game away; N.C. State was going to have to take it from us,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams. “We stayed tough and things went our way and we got the win.
“Vasquez had a great game with his scoring and shooting, but at the same time he's a tough guy. We stay tough because Greivis really does not like to lose, and he can get that through to the other players."
"You can love him or hate him, but he's cocky”, added Lowe. “He's got a lot a confidence, and you know what? I like players like that."
For the second consecutive game, Smith was N.C. State’s leading scorer with 19 points to go with nine rebounds. He also played 34 minutes, a personal high this season. Gonzalez scored 11 points and Courtney Fells added ten. But, Wolfpack guards committed 11 turnovers.
More significantly, the woes of Brandon Costner continue. Costner scored only six points off 2-7 shooting. Over the last three games, he is converting only 25 percent from the field and, more importantly, has looked utterly out of sync offensively.
"He going through something,” mutters Lowe. “He didn't practice yesterday because he was out of town at his grandfather's funeral. I just don't if he's been in it mentally since his grandfather passed. That's one of the reasons we didn’t start him in the second half [tonight], because he just looked like he really wasn't into it. I don't know if that's a reason or an excuse, but we really need him."
The Maryland loss puts a severe damper on N.C. State’s lingering postseason hopes. Even if the Wolfpack finishes the regular season with two victories, an eventual ACC tournament defeat would give N.C. State 13 losses for the season. Last year, Wake Forest finished the season 17-13 (15-2 at home), and they were not selected to participate in the NIT.
N.C. closes out its regular season home schedule Wednesday against Boston College.