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NC State loses at Florida State, and it feels like a dagger for the Wolfpack’s season

N.C. State arrived in Tallahassee on Monday understanding its predicament, circumstances and the stakes. The Wolfpack arrived knowing its place at this late point in a once-promising season that has gone awry, and it arrived without any sort of margin, whatsoever.

N.C. State was, and is, far from the NCAA Tournament bubble, and not a part of the conversation teams strive to be in this time of year. There was, and is, not a scenario in which the Wolfpack makes the NCAA Tournament — barring winning the ACC tournament — that didn’t include a victory at Florida State Tuesday night.

And so this, a 90-83 defeat, felt like a dagger. It felt like the curtain closing on the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a third time in coach Kevin Keatts’ seven seasons. What it means for Keatts, meanwhile, is a debate that’s likely to play out in the coming weeks, and one that could be determined by how N.C. State finishes.

The Wolfpack still has to play Saturday at North Carolina. It hosts Duke on March 4, before closing the regular season at Pittsburgh. There are still opportunities for victories that would’ve moved the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble needle, if State was anywhere close to the bubble.

As it is, though, the only tournament path for the Pack — or at least the clearest — appears to be winning the ACC tournament, which is something no N.C. State team has done since 1987. Under Keatts, the Wolfpack has never been close.

But that’s the reality now for State after Tuesday night. The defeat came in front of a crowd of maybe 3,000 or 4,000 inside the Donald L. Tucker Center, and that crowd estimate might be generous. It came in a late game, that tipped off a little past 9 p.m., in a building without any sort of buzz or energy. A family and friends crowd, indeed.

State hung around, as it has often done in defeats. The Wolfpack gave itself a chance, as it has often done. Yet it didn’t have enough. That has often been the case, too. The takeaways from an N.C. State loss that felt like a defining moment in a season gone south:

1. Defensive woes continue for the Wolfpack

To quote a certain former UNC basketball coach (OK, it was Roy Williams): “things always look better when the ball goes in the basket.” Or worse, if you’re the team that has been somewhat powerless, of late, to stop the ball from going into the basket.

N.C. State has been such a team over its past several games. It arrived in Tallahassee hoping to break a dubious streak of opposing-team shot-making. Instead, the defensive woes continued for the Wolfpack, especially in the first half.

During the first 20 minutes Tuesday night, Florida State made 58.1% of its attempts from the field. Some of that could be attributed to the ease the Seminoles had in creating the shots they wanted. They scored 22 of their 41 first-half points in the paint.

It’s the nature of basketball that luck plays a role in making shots. Bad shots sometimes go in. Good ones can hit every part of the rim and not drop through the basket. Unlucky or not, the Wolfpack has made its past five opponents look pretty good offensively.

FSU became the fifth consecutive N.C. State opponent to finish a game with an effective field goal percentage (which combines 2- and 3-point attempts into a single metric) of greater than 50%. Not coincidentally, State lost three of those games and won another by a point.

The Seminoles didn’t exactly cool off after halftime. No, they basically made shots at the exact same clip. That was primarily because State never found a way to keep FSU from taking the shots it wanted.

2. Casey Morsell breaks out of his funk, at least

It has not been the prettiest of seasons for Casey Morsell, the fifth-year senior guard who has labored, at times, to find his shot and his place in the Wolfpack offense. Morsell was among the best perimeter shooters in the ACC a season ago, but it has been a different story this year — especially lately.

He entered Tuesday night amid a particularly frustrating stretch, having gone 3-for-18 from behind the 3-point line in February. He hadn’t made multiple 3s in any game since a victory against Miami on Jan. 30.

At last, there came an end to the misery. And just at the right time for the Wolfpack, which found itself early in the second half quickly approaching a place of danger. FSU took a 12-point lead, its largest, a few minutes after halftime. And then State scored eight quick points.

Morsell was the catalyst, with 11 points during the first four-and-half minutes after halftime, and that burst helped State stay in it. Well, for a while, anyway. Morsell’s 19 points were his most since that win against Miami late last month, when he finished with 17.

3. This was an abysmal atmosphere

OK, we get it, Florida State fans: the Seminoles aren’t having the best of men’s basketball seasons. FSU, like N.C. State, is well off the NCAA Tournament bubble — and even farther away from it than the Wolfpack. And, yes, you’re mad at the ACC.

All understandable.

And yet it’s an undeniable fact: The atmosphere at the Tucker Center Tuesday night was embarrassing, especially for a school that has acted as if it’s too good for the ACC. (Note: the two conferences FSU aspires to join have, by and large, much, much better home basketball environments, too).

Not only was the arena not close to being half full Tuesday night, but there didn’t appear to be a section that was half full, either. The upper deck had to have enjoyed the night off, given the very few people who spent the night there. When FSU took a nine-point lead with 37.5 seconds left, the few fans in attendance began heading for the exits.

Most of them never arrived in the first place.