Two losses in a row are more than enough for this N.C. State basketball team to endure this season.
Two games mark the longest losing streaks for the Wolfpack in what’s become a special season under first-year coach Kevin Keatts.
In Wednesday night’s game at Syracuse, there were a handful of instances where it looked like N.C. State, after losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina last week, was headed for its third straight loss.
But the Wolfpack, after trailing by seven points in the first half, and six points with 9:42 to play, refused to lose at the Carrier Dome.
Even after Syracuse erased N.C. State’s late eight-point lead to tie the game at 70 with 1:02 to play, the Wolfpack was determined to end its losing streak. And on a late 3-pointer by sophmore guard Markell Johnson, the Wolfpack pulled off a 74-70 road win over the Orange.
“We lost two so we try to get well after we lose,” N.C. State senior guard Sam Hunt said. “So it was a big win.”
In Keatts’ opinion, this stands out most among all the big wins that have put N.C. State (17-9, 7-6 ACC) in solid position to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
“This was our best complete team win,” Keatts said, “because everybody that got in the game had to contribute in some way.”
It’s another example of the progress the Wolfpack program has made under Keatts.
Last season, N.C. State suffered through a seven-game losing streak and two other losing skids of three games while going 15-17.
In the 2015-16 season when N.C. State went 16-17, it endured a five-game losing streak.
This season, N.C. State has lost back-to-back games three different times but always played a solid game to get back to winning after that.
At Syracuse, in a battle between teams working hard to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee, the Wolfpack proved tougher in the end.
Johnson’s 3-pointer with 33 seconds left put the Wolfpack ahead for good at 73-70.
But that wouldn’t have been possible without the four 3-pointers Hunt sank in the game’s final 9:24. Hunt, the graduate transfer from N.C. A&T, had his first double-figure scoring game in ACC play with 14 points.
Graduate guard Allerik Freeman not only led N.C. State with 17 points, but he also had five assists to help the Wolfpack dissect Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Johnson, with 16 points, also shared team honors in assists with five.
Freshman guard Lavar Batts, after playing two minutes in an 85-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Feb. 7 and zero minutes when N.C. State lost 96-89 to UNC last Saturday, played 11 minutes at Syracuse. He contributed four assists, a steal and a rebound despite not scoring.
“All nine guys that played in the game affected it in a positive way,” Keatts said.
N.C. State needed its depth. At halftime five players – Johnson, Torin Dorn, Omer Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman – had two fouls.
Dorn, a junior guard, picked up his third foul in the early minutes of the second half. Johnson’s fourth foul came when he and Syracuse junior guard Frank Howard were called for a double-technical foul following a dust up that stemmed from some pushing after Johnson scored a transition basket.
While Syracuse (17-9, 6-7) desperately needed this win and some others down the stretch before the ACC tournament, the Wolfpack proved to be just as hungry.
On this night, N.C. State proved more poised as well.
“We just came together as a team,” Allerik Freeman said. “We have great leaders and a great coaching staff. We were able to pull it out.”