N.C. State is capable of some very impressive stretches of basketball, but, whether due to poor conditioning, leaving points at the line, or the lack of poise that comes with having a young team, the Pack are having a very hard time closing out basketball games. Blowing the big one was again the case Monday night in Greensboro, as State saw a 17-point lead whittled down to two points before mercifully escaping with a 68-64 win over UNCG.
The Pack (10-3) enjoyed double-digit advantages in the second half of each of their last five games but lost one and could have just as well lost them all. An 18-point lead with under eight minutes to play was cut to two by Detroit, but the Pack held on to win by three. State started the second half up 17 at Tennessee, which got as close as five before falling by seven. A 10-point advantage against East Carolina was cut to one but the Pack responded and pulled away for the all too rare easy win. State led Missouri, a ranked opponent, by 10 at the eight-minute mark but lost by four.
The Missouri loss nearly carried over to a second loss when, despite having been outscored 33-9 over a 15-minute stretch in the middle of the contest, the Spartans (7-8) had two shots down three with under 20 seconds to go. Pack killer Kayel Locke rebounded the first Spartan attempt and had his shot swatted away* by T.J. Warren. The Pack's lone block of the game couldn't have come at a better time. Cat Barber corralled the loose ball and made one of two at the stripe to ice it and stave off an embarrassing loss for the Pack.
Warren's block was redemptive. He was stripped by Tevon Saddler at the one-minute mark which resulted in a Diante Baldwin layup at the other end that cut the lead to two. On the next trip Warren got a big offensive rebound and drew a foul but made just one of two at the stripe. He was just 5-for-8 from the line, and, as a team, the Pack made just 19 of 33 freebies, a robust percentage of 57.6%.
Warren, forced to shoulder so much of the offensive burden for the Pack, simply looked gassed down the stretch of the last two games. He didn't score in the final 12:05 against the Tigers and had just two of his game-high 24 in the final 10:43 against the Spartans. In fact, a Desmond Lee dunk was State's only field goal over the last 10:43 against Greensboro, which outscored the Pack 16-8 during that stretch.
Despite fading down the stretch, Warren still led all scorers with 24. He's had at least 21 in eight straight games. Warren added a game-high nine rebounds, though the Pack were outrebounded by eight against the under-sized Spartans. Barber had 17 points and six assists but needed 27 combined field goal and free throw attempts to get his points. Lee had an efficient 15 on 5-for-9 shooting from the field; he was 5-for-7 from the line.
Locke, who scored 21 points to pace the Spartans against the Pack last year, had 19 and six offensive rebounds Monday night. That's the third and sixth highest point outputs of the 6-5 sophomore's career. Saddler got to the rim at will all night and tallied 18, eight coming from the charity stripe, where he was 8-for-10. Locke went to the line 11 times and made seven.
Thankfully UNCG's leading scorer, Kyle Cain, a Herbian defection from the desert, was awful. He was 5-for-15 from the floor and goose egged it at the line, missing all four of his freebies. Cain and Warren had some words after Cain fouled Warren late in the game, and they had to be separated immediately following the game as the traditional hand shake between the players was abandoned. No punches were thrown but nonetheless Ninja Swoff will probably mete out some stiff punishments (while UNC football players go unpunished for punches thrown in games, but I digress). (Bonus parenthetical: I don't really think there will be any punishments, but nothing would shock me anymore.)
The little fracas at the end should have been the only excitement in this game, but hopefully all of these recent, unnecessarily close games will serve as some sort of learning experience moving forward. Step on their throats, fellas. (And in the case of UNCG, step on their throats and then DDT Wes Miller onto a steel chair.)
11-1 Pittsburgh, which is outscoring opponents by nearly 20 points a game and allowing the 11th fewest points of any team in the country, looms Saturday in State's ACC opener.
*the box score and play-by-play are calling it a steal for Warren, but my eyes clearly saw a block