NC State’s stunning collapse at Duke may be costly in March

If North Carolina State misses the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year next month, it won't be difficult to pinpoint which game cost the improving Wolfpack their spot in the field.

They'll think back to Thursday night's painful 78-73 loss at Duke and how they somehow let a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to go slip away.

For 30 minutes, NC State looked as though it was going to bolster its NCAA tournament candidacy at Duke's expense exactly the way fellow bubble team Miami had less than two weeks earlier. Clad in black alternate jerseys for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, the Wolfpack defended well enough that Duke missed its first nine threes and benefited from the 3-point shooting of reserve Alex Johnson and the brilliant play of point guard Lorenzo Brown.

Every member of NC State's team said after the game that they knew Duke would make a run, yet the Wolfpack looked utterly unprepared for the separate 13-0 and 20-3 blitzes that followed.

Duke got the Wolfpack in foul trouble and rattled them with its pressure defense, forcing a flurry of turnovers, quick shots and mental mistakes. The Blue Devils also received 21 second-half points from Seth Curry and heated up as a team from behind the arc, sinking 6 of 16 in the second half including a go-ahead line-drive three from Austin Rivers with 2:29 to play.

For NC State (18-8, 7-4), the collapse wasn't just crushing because it resulted in a loss to a Tobacco Road rival in a game that once seemed safe. It also was a blown chance to validate their strong start in ACC play and prove how far the program has come in year one under Mark Gottfried compared to the disastrous four-year tenure of previous coach Sidney Lowe.

The Wolfpack's most noteworthy win so far this season came against fellow bubble team Texas back in November, so they desperately needed to hold on against Duke for their NCAA tournament resume. Nonetheless, the good news for NC State is they get two more swings at teams ahead of them in the ACC race: Saturday against Florida State and Tuesday against North Carolina, both in Raleigh.

Win one of those, and it will soothe the pain of this loss and improve NC State's hopes of landing an at-large bid. Lose both, and the final 11 minutes against Duke may turn out to be a painful and haunting memory.

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