NC State flirts with disaster against Louisville in ACC win

N.C. State’s Casey Morsell (14) heads back downcourt after hitting a three-pointer during the second half of N.C. State’s 76-64 victory over Louisville at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022.

N.C. State’s Casey Morsell (14) heads back downcourt after hitting a three-pointer during the second half of N.C. State’s 76-64 victory over Louisville at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022.

Eventually, and it didn’t take long to start the second half, the pressure broke and the baskets started flowing — 17 straight N.C. State points — and the fans cheered happily the rest of the way for everything from breakaway dunks to technical fouls to free chicken sandwiches.

The Wolfpack flirted with disaster against woeful Louisville and walked away unscathed, avoiding a devastating loss, which is more than some of its ACC counterparts can say this week.

Not only did N.C. State desperately need a win of any kind after starting 0-2 in the conference, it could not stomach, by any measure, a loss to a Louisville team that has the potential to be one of the worst teams in ACC history.

Which is exactly what the Wolfpack toyed with in the first half — playing on the worst fears of everyone in attendance — before pulling away early in the second half for the 76-64 win.

“I didn’t think we played hard enough in the first half,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “That’s not who we are. Not this particular team.”

A year after the Wolfpack was at the bottom of the ACC, N.C. State at least has a chance to be in the vicinity of the top this time around. Barring, say, losing at home to Louisville.

The ACC has already mostly sorted itself into haves and have-nots, with a few teams in a mushy middle, but the one thing the league as a whole cannot have is the haves losing to the have-nots or it’ll be last year all over again, and that’s already happening.

Virginia Tech fell victim to one of the classic blunders Wednesday night. The most famous is to never get involved in a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well-known is this: Never lose to Boston College.

Notre Dame — maybe the mushiest of that mushy middle — lost at Florida State. And an N.C. State loss to Louisville would have been crippling not only for the Wolfpack but also for the league at large.

You want the ACC to get four tournament bids? Lose a bunch of games to BC, Louisville, Florida State and so on. That’ll do it.

That loss in Chestnut Hill won’t keep Virginia Tech out of the NCAA tournament, but it does hurt Virginia Tech’s profile, and with so many bad teams, the ACC needs its good teams’ wins against each other to count for a lot. Quadrant 1 is the name of the game, and the more teams the ACC has at that level, the more teams it will get into the NCAA tournament.

And, obviously, for teams like N.C. State on the margins, there’s absolutely no room for error against Louisville or any of the other bottom-feeders if the season is going to end how the Wolfpack wants it to end.

“We know we can be that team if we stay consistent,” N.C. State forward D.J. Burns said. “That’s about it. As long as we stay consistent, we can play with anybody in the country. So we always feel like we can go out and kick anybody’s butt.”

It wasn’t just that the Wolfpack needed this. The ACC at large needed this.

Otherwise, we’re looking at a repeat of last year, when the bottom half of the ACC dragged down the top half and only five teams made the tournament — three of which made the Elite Eight and two the Final Four in a March of redemption and validation.

The good news is that the ACC probably has five teams already comfortably in, with N.C. State the most likely sixth if the Wolfpack can take care of business. Which looked less than certain for a good chunk of Thursday night before N.C. State made it look easy enough in the end.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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