Terquavion Smith injury a worst-case scenario for NC State

The final score is going to go into the books as entirely reasonable and expected, as will Armando Bacot getting the 17 rebounds he needed — as he promised — to break Tyler Hansbrough’s North Carolina record.

History will record Saturday as such. But no one who watched or witnessed North Carolina’s 80-69 win over N.C. State — the Wolfpack’s fifth straight loss in Chapel Hill — is going to remember anything other than the sight of doctors and trainers huddled over Terquavion Smith under one basket before he was stretchered across the court, his right arm in an aircast, his neck immobilized, a towel covering his face.

Everything changed for N.C. State in that instant, not just Saturday but the rest of the season, potentially Smith’s future as well.

The Wolfpack, even with Saturday’s loss, was comfortably in the NCAA tournament, barring some unexpected catastrophe, and — if it could secure a top-eight seed — had what might have been its best chance to win the ACC tournament in eight years, given its explosive backcourt of Smith and Jarkel Joiner and the inability of any team in the league to get separation from any of the others.

And then the unexpected catastrophe arrived in the half, when Leaky Black fouled Smith with his right arm across Smith’s face as Smith soared toward the basket, the ball far above in his extended left hand. Smith crashed to the floor, bracing himself with his right arm, landing hard.

“I thought he was going to get back up,” Joiner said. “I thought he just fell on his back. I didn’t know anything else happened to him.”

But Smith didn’t get back up. For more than 10 minutes, medical personnel from both teams tended to Smith as his legs writhed in pain, bringing out the aircast for his right arm, then a backboard, before EMTs made the slow walk across the court with a stretcher on a gurney, returning minutes later with Smith, who the team later announced was taken to UNC Medical Center with elbow and neck injuries.

Joiner said he didn’t think Black did it on purpose, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said he hadn’t seen it and Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell said it was “obviously a dirty play, it wasn’t necessary.” Whether it was intentional or not, only Black knows, but it was unquestionably a dangerous play and unquestionably out of character for Black, although not out of character in a rough-and-tumble game that was physical from the start.

Afterward, Black asked for Smith’s phone number, and N.C. State provided it, although that didn’t stop Bacot from wearing sunglasses during postgame interviews, a jab at Smith, who was wearing sunglasses when he took a shot at North Carolina and Duke after the win over Miami last week.

“I talked to Leaky after the game, because Leaky is such a sweet, kind kid,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “He was worried about Terquavion. For both teams, today was a contest between two unbelievably great programs and great teams. Nobody wants anybody to get hurt or injured.”

The respectful applause for Smith pivoted quickly to furious boos when the flagrant-2 foul on Black was announced, and the ejected Black followed Smith down the tunnel shortly thereafter, and while N.C. State tried to muster a rally, it wasn’t the same after that.

The Tar Heels pulled away in the final four minutes, thanks in part to 39 free throws (they made 36), and Morsell picked up a flagrant foul of his own — the lesser variety — after hitting Caleb Love in the face with his off arm as Morsell drove to the basket.

“Our guys are really close,” said Keatts, who went to the hospital afterward as the rest of the team returned to Raleigh. “I thought we handled it as best as we could. I thought our guys did a great job.”

This was all the worst-case scenario for N.C. State, not just for Saturday, not just for N.C. State’s season, but for Smith, who until that moment was one of the ACC’s very top prospects for this spring’s NBA draft, even more than last year when he made the decision to return for his sophomore season.

Even if he makes a full return from whatever injuries he has suffered — even if they prove to be less severe than they looked Saturday — the Wolfpack has to proceed for the moment as if they’ll be without him, and it seems unlikely he’ll be able to go through the predraft process like normal, although that remains to be seen as well.

Either way, it’s going to be different for the Wolfpack now for some period of time without its best player, an unusually gifted scorer and natural athlete the ACC has found it almost impossible to stop, and one who has found joy in this so-far successful season that wasn’t there a year ago, starring for the school he grew up watching.

“We know what Terquavion brings to the table,” Joiner said. ‘It’s going to take all of us to bring what he brought. We’ve got guards who can do that. It hurts us. It hurt us. He’s our brother and we love him, even without basketball, we love him. He’s a great dude. He smiles a lot and everything he brings to the locker room. He’s a great dude.”

But how N.C. State actually goes about that?

“That’s something Coach Keatts is going to have to handle,” Joiner said. “I don’t know myself, to be honest with you.”

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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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