WINSTON-SALEM — Charles Dickens famously began his novel A Tale of Two Cities with a line that started, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"
For NC State, their stunning 86-84 loss at Wake Forest at the LJVM Coliseum in Winston-Salem Tuesday night was a horror story that included a combination of the best of halves and the worst of halves.
NC State jumped out to a 16-point lead at one point in the first half and led 47-35 at the break.
Foul trouble added up for NCSU in the second half, with star juniors Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie both playing most of the half with four fouls, and that partly resulted in a breakdown of defense against an inspired Wake Forest squad.
The Deacons shot 19 of 32 from the field for 59.4 percent after the break, blitzed the Pack with 20 points within the first seven minutes after intermission and eventually led by 10 points at 82-72 with 4:11 remaining before holding on during a thrilling finish for the two-point triumph.
"[Wake Forest] played phenomenal in the second half," NCSU head coach Mark Gottfried acknowledged. "I thought the difference was I don't think we defended nearly as well as we could in the second half."
NC State still had several opportunities to change the outcome of the game in the final minute. Leslie could have tied the game at 83 with a pair of free throws with 1:01 left but he made just one of two. After getting a defensive stop, State rushed down the court and Leslie's layup near the rim would not roll in after he was fouled by freshman guard Codi Miller-McIntyre with 29 seconds left.
Leslie though missed both free throws. Senior center Richard Howell hustled for the offensive rebound for NC State and passed to a wide open senior wing Scott Wood for three. Wood, who made just 1 of 5 three-pointers in the game, misfired.
Wake Forest senior guard C.J. Harris made 1 of 2 with 22 seconds remaining, upping the Deacons lead to two but also giving State one more chance.
Both Leslie and freshman guard Rodney Purvis, who led the Pack with 17 points, missed shots, and then Leslie's potential put back was swatted away amidst apparent contact.
A frustrated Leslie would only complain to official Ted Valentine while precious seconds ticked away. Deacons junior forward Travis McKie waited for the foul to come, which did with 3.4 seconds left. McKie made both free throws to ice the contest.
"We had enough chances," Gottfried said. "We missed foul shots late, missed some open shots."
The Deacons were sparked by a surprising performance from freshman center Devin Thomas. He dominated in the paint and finished with career-highs 25 points and 14 rebounds. He also added four blocked shots, four assists and three steals, setting a new personal-best in assists and tying his bests in blocks and steals.
NC State freshman forward T.J. Warren, who had 14 points in the loss, admitted after the contest he had never heard of Thomas before the game.
"All due respect to these scouting services, but I watched Devin Thomas play in probably every single one of his summer season games," Wake head coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "I saw that young man get 44 points, 23 rebounds in a high school game.
"He just plays with unbelievable passion, energy and fearlessness, so I'm not surprised by the game he played.
While Thomas shined, NC State battled foul trouble unlike any they had encountered this season. Howell fouled out, and Leslie, Brown and Wood each ended the contests with four fouls.
"I'm not a guy who makes excuses and blames anybody, but the fact that we were all somewhat saddled with fouls probably made our team cautious," Gottfried lamented.
"It's a tough situation because obviously you want your best offensive players in the game, and you still need to get a stop or give up a foul and come out of the game. We just didn't do a very good job as a team defending, and I do think our foul trouble put us behind the eight ball."
Leslie picked up two fouls in the first half, forcing seldom-used redshirt junior center Jordan Vandenberg to play 12 minutes by halftime. That matched the most playing time Vandenberg had played in any game this year.
Vandenberg, who had six first half points, and the Pack responded in the first half though, using its transition game to nurture a double-digit lead for most of the half. NC State shot 55.6 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes while holding Wake Forest to 38.7 percent (12 of 31).
As the teams flip-flopped sides of the court, so did the teams' offensive efficiencies.
"We didn't come out in the second half with a lot of intensity, and they came out ready to play," Brown explained, "and they got us."
No sequence better exemplified State's second half defensive woes than when they went to a zone and the Deacs got five points from freshman big man Tyler Cavanaugh on the same set play on three straight possessions.
"We can't let that happen," Brown stated.
"We have to be a lot better than that and defend a lot better than that in a 40-minute period," Gottfried added. "The name of that game for NC State was we have to guard better, period."
NC State fell to 15-4 on the season and 4-2 in the ACC while Wake Forest improved to 10-8 and 3-3 in conference action. The Pack returns to action Saturday evening when they host archrival North Carolina at the PNC Arena.
"I got to keep guys going and keeping guys head up, because we still have a long season to go," Brown said. "We can't let a loss keep us down."