It was hard to get past the unseasonal date on the calendar, but the basketball helped. There were all the turnovers, fouls, loose balls, bodies on the floor and missing players you’d expect from the typical mid-January slog between two teams stuck at 3-5 in the ACC standings, not 0-0.
And that was before the finish. There’s no more fitting way to usher in not only the ACC season but basketball season than with a self-inflicted N.C. State loss, in overtime no less. With a chance to open with a win over Georgia Tech despite missing two key players, the Wolfpack literally threw this 82-81 overtime loss away Tuesday night.
Up one with 35 seconds to go after a pair of C.J. Bryce free throws, the Wolfpack was able to steer Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado into a cul de sac in the lane. Devon Daniels came away with the ball and started to dribble up court. The Wolfpack had possession, the lead and just needed to see out the final 15 or so seconds.
Daniels, instead, threw the ball up the court in Manny Bates’ general direction. Consider for a moment the intended recipient: A freshman big man playing his first competitive basketball game in two years, and one who earlier had gotten a bag of IV fluids pumped into each arm simultaneously, double-fisting lactated Ringer’s.
“I thought I saw Manny open,” Daniels said.
Bates had a very nice college debut with five blocks and seven rebounds, every bit the rim defender N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts hoped he would be, banging down low with Georgia Tech’s James Banks III, but that’s still not who you want on the free-throw line with a chance to put a game away. Whatever options there were, Bates was worse. He wasn’t expecting the pass -- “I was just as surprised as you were,” Bates said -- but he definitely saw it coming.
“I thought I had a good handle on it,” he said.
The ball bounced through Bates’ arms, was knocked toward the State bench by a sliding Georgia Tech player, somehow stayed in bounds and ended up at the bottom of a pile. Jackets ball.
“It’s a bang-bang play,” Keatts said. “If we could have a do-over, I’d love for him to hold onto the ball and wait to get fouled.”
Michael Devoe missed a jumper but Banks was fouled and made a pair of three throws to deliver a last-second victory at PNC Arena for the second time in eight months. Whether this loss will be as damaging as the one that played as big a role as any in keeping the Wolfpack out of the NCAA tournament last year, only the entire season will tell. Unlike the last one, alcohol was available in PNC on Tuesday. For medicinal purposes, as it turned out.
To be fair to Daniels, Pat Andree had been in a similar position at the end of regulation after grabbing an offensive rebound. Without a timeout to call -- although it appeared Andree might have asked for one -- he was just sort of paralyzed. Two Georgia Tech players grabbed at the ball, neither was called for a foul, and the possession arrow pointed their way, giving Alvarado a chance at a game-winner at the buzzer.
To come that close was excruciating enough for N.C. State; to come that close to winning the opener without Markell Johnson (ankle) and D.J. Funderburk (suspension) was exponentially more frustrating, even without taking the manner of the loss into consideration.
Then again, compared to what could happen on the football field Saturday when Clemson has a chance to take out its anger over being ranked fifth in the initial CFP rankings on the Wolfpack, this was a butterfly kiss. At least it was temperate inside PNC. It’ll be freezing Saturday night, not accounting for the steam that will still be coming out of Dabo Swinney’s ears, and in prime time on national TV. This was at least sequestered on the ACC Network, slipped in amid all the soccer games that keep bleeding over into basketball windows.
At least it feels like basketball season now. A little too much for November, even.