RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—“It was like a perfect shot,” said N.C. State guard Javier Gonzalez, who went on a one-man, seven-point run late in Sunday afternoon’s game versus the Florida Gators to not only push the contest into overtime but also to give his team a five-point overtime lead. “It was almost like a layup. It went straight in.”
He wasn’t talking about his own shot, though: With 2.2 seconds left in overtime, N.C. State senior Farnold Degand missed the second of two free throw attempts. Gator Chandler Parsons nabbed the rebound, advanced up the court with two dribbles and launched a 65-foot sailing arch toward the opposite basket. It was, indeed, like a perfect shot—swishing through the net, the long three (only one of Florida's three on the day) gave the Gators a crucial 62-61 win on the road and deflated N.C. State’s biggest crowd of the year and much of the team’s pre-ACC momentum. What's more, it’s N.C. State’s second such loss in as many weeks.
Degand made his first free throw, but he’d missed three prior. In fact, as a team, N.C. State shot just 10 for 19 from the charity stripe, a weakness both Coach Sidney Lowe and his players addressed candidly after the game.
“If you’re getting to the free-throw line, you’ve got to knock those down. We wanted to put them on the line, and they made their free throws,” said Lowe, referring to a series of late-game fouls used to prevent Florida from sinking a three. Gator Erving Walker made four free throws in the last seven seconds, including one he even attempted to miss. Florida went 7 for 10 from the line on the day. “We didn’t, and that was the difference in the game.”
Free throws down the stretch weren’t the lone culprit for the Wolfpack Sunday afternoon, though: Working against the aggressive press of the Gators, N.C. State often had troubled advancing the ball past the half court line, forcing several time-outs by the Wolfpack back court. As Lowe noted after the game, his players were standing still and waiting for the action, instead of moving so as to spread the floor to open passing and dribbling lanes. And when they’d made it into the other hemisphere, the same torpor forced a handful of ill-advised attempts as the shot clock ran to zero. True, one such bust resulted in one sneaky Smith slam, and Wood sank one of his four three-pointers as the shot clock expired. But, late in the second, State could have taken the game to 48-48 tie nearly two minutes before it did. Instead, Gonzalez threw up an airball with time expiring.
Tracy Smith led the Wolfpack with 21 points and nine rebounds, working off of spin moves in the low post to land several bank shots. But Smith seemed hesitant to pass out of the post, often resulting in missed shots versus double or triple teams, with open Wolfpack shooters—such as the rapidly improving freshman Scott Wood—left waiting on the wings.
And that might be the silver lining for the Wolfpack in today’s loss: Wood, who has struggled early this year, seems to be finding both his shot and his confidence, and the mild-mannered Indiana forward seems to be working through the tough breaks just fine. “It comes down to executing and foul shots,” he said in the locker room after the loss. “If we had made our free throws, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
And the situation is this: N.C. State falls to 10-4 while Florida advances to 11-3. More urgently, after a Holy Cross game at home Wednesday, N.C. State spends 15 of its next 16 games in ACC play before the conference’s tournament in mid-March. Including stops at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Maryland, seven of those contests are road trips. Had the Wolfpack stepped in front of Gator junior Chandler Parsons this afternoon in overtime, they’d have given themselves a much-needed shot in the arm, especially headed into a tough second half of the season.
But they didn’t.
“This one really hurts,” Coach Lowe said after the game, looking down at the press room podium Sunday. “They all hurt, but this one, this one, this one really, really hurts.”