When it was over, when they were done posing for pictures with fans in the hallways outside the ballroom that holds the court of this most unusual of basketball tournaments, N.C. State’s players could say they weren’t surprised.
They weren’t surprised, because they believed. How they had come to believe in themselves, coming off a dismal season, with a new coach and a handful of new players, isn’t quite as simple.
But it sure was quick. It took only five games for Kevin Keatts to get a signature performance out of his new team, a 90-84 upset of Arizona, the No. 2 team in the country, Wednesday night.
“A lot of people will be more surprised than we are,” said Lennard Freeman, the long-suffering fifth-year senior. “We’ve said for a while that people don’t know how good we are. We’re just scratching the surface.”
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Safe to say, a whole lot of people will be more surprised that N.C. State jumped out to a nine-point lead on Arizona in the first half, and after giving that back, did it again in the second half. They will be even more surprised that after Arizona took the lead late, 75-73, the Wolfpack responded with a 13-1 run to take control of the game.
This was such a departure from even the best N.C. State performances of recent years, with the Wolfpack pressing, hustling, playing defense – and hitting huge shots, led by Al Freeman (24 points) and freshman Braxton Beverly (20 points), the latter only declared eligible by the NCAA three games ago.
All the pieces seemed to align for the Wolfpack. Beverly, who struggled mightily in his first two games with the Wolfpack, not only showed off his 3-point shooting but served as a de facto point guard with Markell Johnson cramping up. Abdul-Malik Abu made his season debut after missing the first four games with a knee injury, and N.C. State wouldn’t have been able to handle Arizona’s massive front line without him.
“It just feels good to be out there with this new change and with this culture, with my family,”Abu said. “It’s a good feeling right now.”
N.C. State will face the winner of Wednesday’s late game between Northern Iowa and Southern Methodist on Thursday, but whatever happens over the next two days – whatever happens over the next few months – this win will be hard to top.
“We’re trying to build a culture here,” Keatts said. “Obviously, when I took over the program I wanted to change a couple things and put in our system. The debate that always happens, when you’re a first-year coach at a different program, do you try to put in your system or do you play to the guys you already have in the program? I felt like at UNC Wilmington it worked right away, and I could put the system in, and these guys are making me look good five games into the season.”
It’s funny to think where so many of these principal actors were a year ago. Abu was with N.C. State in St. Thomas, the tournament where the first fissures of a devastatingly disappointing season showed, while Lennard Freeman redshirted. Al Freeman was here, winning this tournament with Baylor. (He’s 4-0 at Atlantis now.) Keatts, coaching UNC Wilmington, was between games against East and Middle Tennessee State. And Beverly was at home in Ohio, watching this tournament (and Freeman) on TV.
But they took their Italian tour together over the summer, went through conditioning drills together and over the first four games – all wins, over lesser competition – started to believe that things might be different this season.
“Kevin Keatts, for his third, fourth, fifth game at N.C. State, that looked like a group that had been together a lot longer,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, the former N.C. State assistant coach. “That’s to their credit.”
None of this Wednesday was according to script: Arizona (3-1), featuring Bahamas native DeAndre Ayton, a stellar freshman center and the potential No. 1 pick in next spring’s NBA draft, was both the statistical and sentimental favorite here. The only other time N.C. State beat a nonconference opponent ranked in the top two in the regular season, it was 1958. (The Wolfpack’s last win against any top-two team was over Duke, in 2015.)
But N.C. State started strong, stayed resolute and wore the Wildcats down at the end. Ayton and Allonzo Trier each finished with 27 points, but the Wolfpack had more variety in its offense: Beverly’s long-range shooting, Al Freeman’s driving and even Omer Yurtseven’s hook shot. Torin Dorn, 2-for-9 from 3-point range going into the game, was 3-for-4 on Wednesday. It could also rely on its defense, forcing Arizona into bad shots down the stretch as the Wolfpack pulled away.
Still, even to the end, until the final 10 seconds, Lennard Freeman wasn’t sure. He’s seen too much at N.C. State to take anything for granted.
“With State,” Freeman said, “you never know, man.”
With State, you never do. This time, that was a good thing.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock