|1st half||2nd half||Final|
Penn State's Wednesday night game against North Carolina State represented its best opportunity for a résumé-building non-conference win after the Nittany Lions' loss to the now 9th-ranked Aggies of Texas A&M. With the rest of the OOC schedule against teams outside the KenPom top-100, a road game against NC State, while not particularly impressive, was a must-win. So it was an almost indescribable frustration watching Penn State get outplayed for almost the entire game en route to an 85-78 win for NC State.
That they lost the only remotely challenging game remaining in the non-conference schedule means that Penn State will be in desperation mode for the rest of the season with the NCAA Tournament as their goal. Anything short of a third place finish in the weak Big Ten - which has collectively dropped 9 of 10 games vs. the ACC in the Challenge as of publication - will likely require a strong performance in the conference tournament to get the Nittany Lions into the dance based on some of the latest projections.
The night started out so well for Penn State. At the under-16 timeout, the Nittany Lions led 11-0. But from there, it was a disaster. NC State went on a 37-19 run to finish the half and led 37-30 at the break. Penn State looked lost on offense, missing layups and turning the ball over while letting the hosts get to the rim for good looks.
The Wolfpack let it fly from three in this game, despite entering the game shooting just 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. They were rewarded by this strategy, hitting 7 of their first 10 attempts from long range, and finishing the night 10-for-16. Even seven-footer Omer Yurtseven hit all three of his attempts from deep.
While NC State only missed six threes on the whole night, Penn State missed an ungodly number of layups. According to one game log, the Nittany Lions missed 14 of them, and you could easily be convinced it was more than that. In addition, Penn State finished 15-23 at the free throw line. They've now missed at least six free throws in four straight games.
Tony Carr began heating up in the second half to get the team within striking distance. His midrange jumpers reminded of his first half against Texas A&M, when he scored 21 points and kept the Nittany Lions in the game despite foul trouble. A 7-0 run by Carr himself brought Penn State back to 50-46 with 14 minutes to play. While the Wolfpack would take control back, Carr finished the game with 29 points and 7 rebounds.
NC State was comfortable in the halfcourt for much of this game, and it does beg the question as to why head coach Patrick Chambers waited so long to use the 1-2-2 press that had been so effective up until this point in the season. Foul trouble may have been a factor, but allowing it to handcuff you with a double digit deficit late in the second half is curious. The first appearance of a press was with less than six minutes to play and NC State up 10.
The frontcourt was dreadful for Penn State for much of the night. Lamar Stevens, in particular had a brutal night, going just 1 for his first 8 from the field with 4 turnovers. Mike Watkins took just about all of his shots from right around the rim and could only go 4-10. And Julian Moore and Satchel Pierce were almost invisible, combining for just two points, two rebounds, and one block while allowing plenty of looks on the interior.
Stevens did show signs of life down the stretch, scoring back-to-back buckets to get the lead down to 75-68. A loose ball foul sent Jamari Wheeler to the line, and he made 1-of-2 to cut it to 75-69 with 2:33. Carr then followed with a three to get it to 75-72 with under 2 minutes to play. The scoring went back and forth, with Stevens getting it to 79-76 with 43 seconds left, but he then committed a silly foul 80 feet from the basket and let NC State get to the line. A Stevens turnover on the following possession essentially sealed it, with Penn State never getting it back to a one score game.
The Nittany Lions move to 6-2 with the loss, and have two conference games next up on the schedule. A road trip to Iowa City looms on Saturday, with a home tilt against the similarly-desperate Wisconsin Badgers following on Tuesday. Penn State fans have to hope that the egg laid tonight was not a sign that old habits from 2016-17 are still around in 2017-18. Otherwise, it may be another long, fruitless year in Happy Valley.