(USA Today Sports Images)N.C. State was picked to win the ACC this season and it looked up to the challenge almost a month ago when it upset Duke, knocking the Blue Devils out of the No. 1 spot in the polls with Wolfpack fans storming the court.
It seems like it's been all downhill from there. The Wolfpack played a second straight game without starting point guard Lorenzo Brown on Thursday in the rematch and lost 98-85. It is the third straight defeat for N.C. State and the fifth in seven games since beating the Blue Devils. It's fair to wonder whether N.C. State enjoyed its high point of the season on Jan. 12 or whether this team has another run coming.
N.C. State (16-7, 5-5) is firmly in the middle of the pack in the conference it was favored to win trailing Miami by 41/2 games and needing a lot to suddenly start going its way to get back into contention for the regular season championship. It's unlikely that will happen, but maybe the Wolfpack can pull it together and win the conference tournament next month.
N.C. State is supremely talented when it has all its pieces healthy and playing together and sometimes even when it doesn't. It rallied in the second half Thursday and left the impression that if the game was 5 minutes longer it might have overcome Duke's 21-point halftime lead. But it also has struggled with lapses recently such as giving up 10 first-half 3-pointers to the Blue Devils. Thursday marked the third time in conference play N.C. State has given up 50 points in a half.
In beating Duke a month ago, N.C. State found a way to win a close game, but it has found ways to lose those kinds of games since. Four of its five losses since beating Duke were by a combined seven points, including a pair of one-point games. The most difficult of those was narrowly missing an upset of Miami by allowing a tip-in game winner with less than a second remaining.
Perhaps getting Brown back will be enough to turn things around. There is no overstating how important he is. The Wolfpack need to find something or someone to spark them in a different direction than where they're heading now.
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