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March 22, 2013
DAYTON, Ohio - The Temple marching band, tucked in the corner for the University Of Dayton Arena stands unfurled a giant banner as the NC State players walked off the court, dejected after a 76-72 loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The sign read: "WOLFPACK YOUR BAGS." A year after the 'Pack captured the nation's attention with an improbable run to the Sweet 16 - the program's first since 2005 - they were bounced early by the Owls.
For seniors Richard Howell and Scott Wood, this was the final image of their careers: a season that started with so much promise ending earlier than anyone hoped, or expected.
"It sucked. It's the only way to put it," Wood said of his final walk off a collegiate basketball court. "Do we like getting here? Yes. That's the first step, but our program deserves championships, and that's where it needs to be."
But the immediate heartache should not outweigh the facts. Before last season's postseason run, the Wolfpack had missed five straight NCAA Tournaments. Now, two years in coach Mark Gottfried's tenure, the program is not just happy making the field - it wants to win, and those days are not far off.
"Scott and I are definitely leaving a better place than what we first got to NC State," Howell said. "It's been a great experience, especially these two years with Coach Gottfried and the type of turnaround that we all had. I know that with the recruits coming in and the players they still have now that they're going to be a dangerous team next year.
"The expectations rose high after last year," added Gottfried. "You're always in a position where we're trying to reach an expectation level, and we always seem to fall short. Even today, and this is disappointing. Yet, if you step back and look at it, there are a lot of good things happening."
But Friday afternoon, the fire that propelled the Wolfpack to last year's late-season surge was nowhere to be found in the first 20 minutes.
The Wolfpack were too lax on the defensive end of the floor, allowing the Owls to find open shooters all over the court. In the first half, Temple shot 53.3 percent from the floor (16-of-30) and 45.5 percent from beyond the arc (5-of-11), using the hot hands of forward Jake O'Brien (13 first-half points) and point guard Khalif Wyatt (11 first-half points) and a momentum-swinging 18-3 run to build a 16-point lead in the opening half.
"They shot the ball pretty well in the first half, and I don't think we did a good job contesting their shots," junior point guard Lorenzo Brown said. "We knew they had shooters, but I didn't think they could shoot like that. They did a good job shooting the ball."
Despite the fact that Temple sophomore Anthony Lee - a 6-9 forward who lends the Owls much-needed size and physicality inside - played just three minutes in the first half, the Owls scored 16 points in the paint.
"We just weren't motivated to play defense," junior forward C.J. Leslie said. "There's nothing else to be said - we didn't come out and play hard defense."
The Wolfpack also turned the ball over 10 times in the opening 20 minutes, due to being "careless," with the basketball, according to Brown, who finished with a team-high 22 points.
"I think we just needed to come out with a little better energy there to start the game," Wood said. "I think communication, we were just kind of lackadaisical, gave them some easy ones. Any time you let someone see a couple go down, they get some confidence. That's on me as a senior. I've got to do a better job of just getting them to pick it up. There's no reason that it's the NCAA championship and we should come out sluggish.
"We didn't play defense very well, and everyone in the room will admit it. It's one of those things where you have to come out with better energy and intensity. You can't give them those easy ones. If we would have started better defensively, it could have been a different story."
The Wolfpack nearly erased those first-half mistakes after the break.
Using a more focused defensive approach and an effort to get the ball into Leslie and Howell on the block, the Wolfpack clawed back into the game. After scoring 14 combined points in the first half, Leslie and Howell finished with 20 and 14, respectively.
"It's frustrating to have a start like we had," Gottfried said. "To see how well we could defend and score in the second half. We turned the ball over three or four times, shot 70 percent from the field and really defended them well. But we didn't in the first half. It's very disappointing. I don't know if there's one thing, but that is certainly not how we expected to play."
But in the end, Wyatt was too much for NC State to handle.
Wyatt scored a game-high 31 points - 20 of those coming in the second half - to help the Owls keep NC State at bay. Although the Wolfpack cut the lead down to three points with 10 second to play, they never regained control of the lead; their lone lead in the game was 2-0 in the opening minutes.
Wyatt scored six of the Owls final eight points, taking over when the game was in the balance.
"Today, Khalif Wyatt was the best player on the floor, period," Gottfried said. "He controlled tempo; he controlled the game.
"He really played well. He's a great player. We've played against really good guards this year, and Khalif Wyatt is as good or better than all of them. He controls tempo, doesn't turn the ball over, plays like a senior, can score, can pass. He puts you in a lot of tough positions throughout the game with his ability to drive and to get you on his hip. He's a really good player. He controlled the game, I thought, today from a tempo standpoint."
Note: Leslie deflects NBA questions: Now that the 2012-13 season is officially over, Leslie will have a big decision to make: come back to NC State for his senior season, or enter the NBA Draft this summer.
But immediately after the loss to Temple, the decision was the last thing on his mind.
"Can I get time? I haven't even had time to think," he said. "It's something I will sit down and think about."
"That's going to be a family decision for him," added Wood. "Obviously, he has the talent to play in the pros. He has to make a smart decision, whatever he thinks is best. I'm sure he will make the right one."
N.C. State NEWS