Despite its best late-game efforts, the NC State men’s basketball team fell 74-68 to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase in Uncasville, Connecticut on Wednesday, Nov. 17.
After falling down by as many as 14 points midway through the second half, the Wolfpack (3-1) battled back into the contest and even cut the margin down to two points with just over 30 seconds remaining. However, NC State’s interior woes, failures to score efficiently and its foul troubles shut down any hopes of a miracle comeback against a deep Oklahoma State (4-1) squad.
“I'm super proud of my guys,” said head coach Kevin Keatts. “I thought we showed a lot of fight today. When you look at it, we played a really good team on a neutral court. Obviously, we're without one of our best players in [redshirt junior forward] Manny Bates who's gonna be out for the rest of the year. But what I will say is our team fought the entire time. We got down as much as 14, and we found a way to claw back in, which is a very positive thing for us. We've got to continue to get better. … It's a good opportunity for us to learn, especially early in our season.”
It was a scrappy, physical affair for the Wolfpack in a game that saw a whopping 50 combined fouls called between both teams. Three players fouled out of the contest, including NC State starters senior forward Jericole Hellems and sophomore forward Ebenezer Dowuona, as well as OSU starter Isaac Likekele. That wasn’t even the ugliest stat of the game, with Oklahoma State shooting 38.7% from the floor and 15.4% from 3 and NC State shooting 30.4% and 25% from those same spots, respectively. The two teams combined to take 66 free throws.
Redshirt sophomore guard Dereon Seabron continued his dominant stretch of games to begin the year, ending the contest with 19 points on 6 of 11 shooting to go along with 10 boards and three assists. Hellems also had a good game, bouncing back from a pitiful four-point performance against Central Connecticut State last night, putting up 18 points. However, both Seabron and Hellems had their fair share of issues, such as combining for eight turnovers.
“I thought [Hellems] played well because he got a chance to stay on the floor,” Keatts said. “And that was one of the keys to it. I thought he played like a veteran guy, thought he played like a senior. I thought he played like a guy who wanted to win. … He got to the free-throw line. He made some plays. He was 10 for 10 from the free-throw line.”
Keatts and the Pack actually performed well against a strong starting lineup from Oklahoma State, holding that unit to just 18 points. However, in a statistic from Bizarro World, the Cowboys outscored the Wolfpack 56-5 in bench points. Oklahoma State brothers Kalib and Keylan Boone, who averaged a combined 12.3 points per game entering this matchup, combined for 27 points. Kalib Boone, who only averaged four points and 0.5 rebounds, had 20 of those points to go along with five blocks.
It didn’t help on either end that Keatts still hasn’t quite cracked the enigma of the center rotation. Dowuona looked solid in the first half, recording four stocks in the first half, but he quickly picked up two fouls and went to the bench. Sophomore forward Jaylon Gibson took over but a similar theme of rawness ensued, with Gibson picking up two fouls, including a bad offensive foul on a screen which led to a turnover. After Dowuona fouled out in the second, Gibson looked solid in the last five minutes of the game but it still wasn’t enough.
Freshman forward Ernest Ross gave some good energy while playing up to the center spot and had a highlight-reel block but still, NC State’s center problems killed it all night. In fact, Oklahoma State finished the game with 42 points on the interior and finished with a 10-5 blocking advantage.
“Our young bigs, and we're young there, they're really freshmen,” Keatts said. “They're going to get better. And we're going to continue to work with them. That being said, we've got to do a tremendous job. Our guards are helping them. And what I mean by helping them is we got to do a great job of taking away entry passes. Great help-side defense, digging on the post when the opportunity is there. Those guys will be good. Those guys will get better. I promise you they've already improved within the last three weeks. And as we go along, they'll even get better.”
The Wolfpack put up an impressive defensive showing in the first half, despite the constant rotation on the interior. Sophomore guard Cam Hayes has improved defensively this season, helping force several Oklahoma State turnovers and causing some perimeter disruption.
NC State held Oklahoma State to just 31% from the floor and 14% from deep at the end of the first half while snagging seven steals. With those numbers, one would think the Pack ran away with the contest in the first half. Unfortunately for NC State, it couldn’t capitalize on the strong defensive first half and let up a 12-0 run in the last three minutes of the half.
Further, the Wolfpack offensively burned out outside of Seabron and junior guard Casey Morsell, with that duo combining for 16 of the Pack’s 25 first-half points.
The Pack let the Cowboys continue their ending to the first half and, after cutting the lead to four to start the second half, allowed the Cowboys to go on a 13-16 run to give Oklahoma State an 11-point lead.
After going down by 14 around the 10-minute mark of the second half, NC State rallied an offensive spurt by the trio of Hellems, Seabron and Hayes. Hayes finished the game with 16 points and had a crucial 3-pointer to cut the Cowboy lead to just six with just over a minute remaining.
However, after cutting the lead to two, Hellems committed a bad foul and Oklahoma State held on to win the free-throw war that ensued, ultimately sending the Pack packing.
It’s a hard loss to swallow for a Wolfpack team that is struggling without Bates, who is out for the year with an injury. It’s never a good idea to dabble in what ifs, but if Bates had been healthy for this contest, it’s safe to say that Oklahoma State likely wouldn’t have had such a dominant performance inside or such a hefty rebounding advantage.
Regardless, NC State will have an opportunity to get back on track when it returns home to PNC Arena on Sunday, Nov. 21 when it takes on Texas Southern.
“We don't ever want to back down or quit,” Hayes said. “Whether we [are] up 20 or down 20, we’re always going to have that fight. It was nice knowing early that the team is going to fight regardless of the score, that they’re not gonna quit on any possession or any play. So it was a good little test and I guess we passed it. The result wasn't what we wanted but I'm glad that we fought the whole game.”