Wolfpack squanders another opportunity, falling to Duke after loss to UNC

N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts ended the first half Monday by firing a fist into the air after a last-second basket by the Pack.

He ended the game with slumped shoulders, headed toward Duke coach Jon Scheyer for a quick handshake after a 79-64 loss to the No. 9 Blue Devils, and soon was back in his locker room for a long postgame talk with his team.

The Wolfpack had just lost its fifth ACC game of the season at PNC Arena. Each one stung and some were close, but the losses to North Carolina and Duke were not close, not in the closing minutes, sending some Wolfpack fans home early and unhappy.

Keatts is in his seventh season as head coach. Until Monday, he was 3-0 against ranked Duke teams at PNC Arena. He has 11 wins over ranked teams. He coached the Pack to 23 wins last season and a place in the NCAA Tournament.

When Keatts first eyed the ACC schedule for 2023-24, he had to quickly notice the Saturday-Monday games in early March against UNC and then Duke. Before and after the 79-70 loss at Carolina, he wondered aloud whether any team had played the two ACC leaders in such a short time during an ACC regular season.

In a Friday news conference, Keatts was asked how the Wolfpack program measured up against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, especially now that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams had retired.

“We’ve won those games,” Keatts said. “There’s been opportunities in the past where N.C. State may not have beaten Duke or Carolina. They may not have climbed that ladder to be able to do that. We’ve been able to do that. And I think our guys recognize that.

“Though we respect the fact they’re very good programs, two of the top programs probably in the history (of college basketball), we’re competing and we’re right there and I do like where we’re at. I love the fact that our guys’ mindset and that they understand that ‘Hey man, we’re just as good.’”

There are some Wolfpack fans, and others who dwell and post on social media, who might disagree. Even in the age of the transfer portal, and the chance to quickly shuffle the deck with a roster and be competitive, questions continue to be raised about the future of the Wolfpack program.

The Blue Devils were the better team Monday — quicker to loose balls, relentless on the backboards, meaner on defense. The Pack had its moments and D.J. Burns Jr. had his best offensive game of the season with 27 points, but the Devils locked it down in the final 10 minutes of the game.

The Pack had blown defensive assignments. The Blue Devils took advantage nearly every time, either getting easy shots or freeing up outside shooters. They had 19 offensive rebounds in the game, good for 23 second-chance points.

“It’s simple. We just didn’t put a body on them,” the Pack’s Casey Morsell said. “They were crashing at a high rate. We were trying to run and get easy baskets on the offensive end instead of finishing possessions on the defensive end.”

Duke led 33-30 at the half, Keatts firing off the fist after Morsell’s buzzer-beater. The Devils shot 33.3% from the field and Kyle Filipowski was scoreless after playing just four minutes in the first half.

It all changed for the Pack in the second half. The Duke shots started going in — the Devils hitting 20 of 32 for 62.5% shooting. Their lead grew. The Pack could do nothing to stop it.

“We had too many defensive mistakes,” Burns said. “We limited them in the first half and then we came out and didn’t do as good of a job in the second half, and that’s when they blew it open.”

That was all discussed at length in the Pack locker room after the game. It will come up again in team meetings before State (17-13, 9-10 ACC) finishes the regular season Saturday at Pittsburgh.

“We just need to put a full 40 minutes together instead of 20 or 25,” Morsell said.

It’s all about preparing for the ACC Tournament now for the Wolfpack. That will be its last hope for postseason.

“I’m very optimistic about the future of this team,” Morsell said. “Right now we’ve just got to get out of this hole we’re in.”