NC State players struggle to find the right words after a tough NCAA Tournament loss
It was hard to say if Terquavion Smith was trying to hold back a cough or had a catch in his throat.
It was not long after N.C. State’s 72-63 loss to Creighton in the NCAA South Region. The Wolfpack’s season — and almost surely Smith’s Wolfpack career — had come to an end Friday.
The sophomore guard did all he could to keep the Pack alive in his first NCAA Tournament with 32 points. He made shots, he went hard to the basket, he had the one, single play CBS likely will continue to show in its tournament highlights package — a left-handed slam over 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner that came so quickly, was so savage, that it left many blinking their eyes.
But there he stood, in the middle of a silent Wolfpack locker room, a bit emotional, trying to put into words what it meant — the NCAA game, the season, his two years in the program.
“N.C. State means a lot to me,” Smith said. ”It’s always a place I’ll call home.”
Nearby, center D.J. Burns sat glumly in a chair, ready to accept media questions but not offering up much in return.
The day before, a buoyant Burns said he more than accepted the challenge of matching up against Kalkbrenner, saying it was the kind of thing he thrives on.
Kalkbrenner had 31 points Friday. Burns had two points, four rebounds and four fouls.
“I got in foul trouble,” Burns said in explanation.
Was the matchup with Kalkbrenner more than he expected?
“I got in foul trouble and he made shots,” he said.
Asked to assess the season, with the 23 wins and 12 ACC victories, Burns said, “We did good. We’ll be back next year.”
Burns didn’t say he would be back. The transfer from Winthrop, who helped breathe some life into the Wolfpack program and became a big-man fan favorite, said he had not made a decision on his final year of college eligibility.
Jarkel Joiner will not be back, having played out his eligibility. Like Burns, the point guard transferred to N.C. State before this season, eager to play with Smith, looking to rejuvenate a program that was 11-21 a year ago and hopefully get the Pack to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
“It means everything to me,” said Joiner, who had 13 points in his final game with N.C. State “It’s the best move I’ve made in my life. I tried my best, I gave my all.”
For Joiner, like Smith, the NCAA game was his first. He played for two years at Cal State-Bakersfield and then two at Mississippi, but never in the NCAA Tournament until Friday.
“It was fun, exciting,” Joiner said. “It was electric. I’ve never felt that way in my life.”
The Wolfpack players did not seem interested, and understandably so, in rehashing the game — the plays that didn’t go their way or calls that didn’t go their way, the shots that didn’t drop.
Kalkbrenner was a game-long problem when Creighton had the ball. The Pack’s fouls hurt, taking Burns out of the game. Creighton shot 52% in the second half and made some big shots down the stretch.
All that collectively made a difference in the outcome. It made the Bluejays of the Big East Conference the winners in a highly competitive game.
But the postgame message from Pack coach Kevin Keatts, senior guard Casey Morsell said, will be what resonates most from this last game of the season.
“He said he was proud of us,” Morsell said. “More so, that we did something that can help this program move in the right direction.
“He said he loved us and to build from this experience and cherish this moment.”