The simple answer to a Syracuse Orange loss against NC State, in a game where it garnered 27 free throws, is that it missed eight freebees and lost by four.
Break into the nuanced view of the free throw game the Orange and Wolfpack played on Wednesday, and it’s clear that Syracuse did not take advantage of the discernible advantage of sitting in the bonus for more than half of the game.
The referees stopping the game nearly every minute for a foul call should have made that clear.
Not only did the Orange fail to hit the free throws given, they did not play effectively on offense or defense in crunch time. This was a team that deep into the bonus while NC State barely crept into the one-and-one.
In the first half, Syracuse reached the bonus with over 12 minutes left, then got there with 13:24 left in the second.
Having 27 free throw opportunities is substantial. But considering SU only shot 13 first half free throws relative to 12 minutes of bonus, then only 14 free throws after halftime relative to over 13 minutes of bonus, the effort to get to the line felt light.
NCSU only shot 10-of-13 from the line, while consistently fouling the Orange.
The Wolfpack drew 26 personal foul calls to Syracuse’s 16, the refs and Kevin Keatts’ team put the ball in SU’s court to use it to its advantage. It did not, particularly in the final minutes.
As N.C. State established a five point lead late behind a ridiculous 7-of-13 second half behind the three-point line, Tyus Battle had the right idea. In the double bonus, and with NCSU only touching the one-and-one bonus with six fouls on Syracuse, he drove to the paint. At that point, Syracuse set the standard of going into traffic entrenched in the bonus and being willing to play the free throw game.
Battle rounded a screen on a tight set, got to the hole and hit a tough layup.
It got better. Syracuse’s defense got physical, attacked NCSU deep on the perimeter as it sat waiting for a three-pointer to emerge. It didn’t, and the Wolfpack chucked the possession away.
Battle, on the ball again, made another sensational play. With the threat of his drive mounting again, NCSU drew in on him for a split second, in the way they didn’t at the rim on the previous possession, giving Oshae Brissett the sliver of space he needed to unleash a quality three. The Orange checked two boxes, flexing the free throw edge it held and mixing looks against the defense.
Then NCSU got smart.
In a tied game, with the Carrier Dome reaching its loudest level with Syracuse on a 8-0 run, the Pack needed one possession that both drained the clock and put points up. With so few fouls in hand, they’d needed perfect passing execution and they got it. A quick pass to the right, feed inside, pass back outside, dribble across a screen and they shifted SU’s defense around enough times to create space for one last three.
Even down 73-70 with just over 30 seconds left, SU still held a hearty advantage thanks to the free throw scenario. It held possession, had one timeout remaining and NCSU hadn’t reached the single bonus yet. All SU needed was a two.
But NCSU, knowing Battle had done all the playmaking through the 8-3 run, went full court in a press it threw SU’s way a few times throughout the night. Frank Howard was the most reliable ball-handler to get the ball up-court, so it forced the ball out of Battle’s hands.
Howard made it into the half court but the possession already broke into a rushed mess. SU had time and fouls on its side, and instead tossed away an entire possession on this open-but-difficult for Brissett above the break with 15 seconds left to shoot.
The scoreboard panicked the offense, when the actual scenario playing out favored Syracuse. Look at what happened next. As Brissett’s shot bounced out, SU fouled immediately, only its seventh team foul, sending NCSU to the line for one-and-one. They missed the first shot and showed dismay as they fouled Howard.
NCSU knew the advantage Syracuse held, that SU didn’t seem to on the previous possession. The Orange could work back into this two points at a time thanks to the foul situation.
Maybe it was the basketball gods’ way of saying Syracuse missed its chance already when Howard bricked both ensuing free throws.
In the final trip to the line of the night, the Wolfpack only hit one but closed the game 74-70. In a tiny sample of what playing the foul game could have looked like, NCSU shot 1-of-3 over the final stretch.
Battle and Brissett both missed one prior, and then Howard’s pair of misses demoralized the effort. But what’s worse is that Syracuse lost the game itself on the line when the team had the leverage to make NCSU lose there.
The heave possession by Brissett should have been a drive to the rim, and there are likely more of those in the final 10 minutes, all of which Syracuse played in the bonus, where you could say the same.
The numbers showed NCSU was the worse of the two teams on the line. Syracuse did not try to let that play out in action.