N.C. State has reached the first-do-no-harm portion of its season, with an NCAA tournament berth of some kind – even if it means a Dayton detour – all but assured as long as the Wolfpack doesn't screw up.
That makes games like Tuesday's visit from Boston College very high-risk, low-reward endeavors. Beating the Eagles won't do much for N.C. State's resume. Losing at home could have hurt the Wolfpack badly. The same is true to some extent for the final three games of the ACC schedule, although N.C. State bought itself some wiggle room Tuesday night with an 82-66 win.
So first, do no harm. That's the mantra at this point.
For a while Tuesday, N.C. State couldn't even do that. The Wolfpack opened the game by missing its first eight shots and turning the ball over six times. Only some similar incompetency by Boston College kept N.C. State from being on the wrong end of an early blowout – by the time N.C. State finally scored, six minutes into the game, it was only 6-1.
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“The first five minutes of the game, I was going to get up and leave,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said.
The Wolfpack made 17 of its next 19 shots to close out the half on its way to its 19th win and a 9-6 record in the ACC, and what resonated more than anything afterward was the sheer joy of playing meaningful basketball in February, unexpected as it may have been going into the season.
For Abdul-Malik Abu, it's the first time since his freshman year, when N.C. State made it to the Sweet 16. And in an otherwise difficult season for the senior, his nine points Tuesday actually represented his third-highest scoring ACC game this winter.
“It means everything to me,” Abu said. “I want to go far. I want to play in the tournament again, survive and advance. It's just the little things every day that lead up to that.”
For Sam Hunt, it's his first time ever. He transferred from Jacksonville to N.C. A&T, never winning so much as a conference tournament game at either school. Before this season, he had won 25 games in his entire career. He could potentially match that total this season.
“I'm living a dream,” said Hunt, who has made 10 of his past 11 3-point attempts including all four Tuesday. “I didn't ask for this. I couldn't have imagined this. I just knew I was going to be playing in the ACC. For us to be doing what we're doing now, it's a dream, but we've got to finish strong.”
Jerome Robinson, the explosive Boston College guard from Garner, is still waiting for that experience. If this was Robinson's last game in the Triangle – his father told the News & Observer that Robinson will explore the NBA draft process after the season, so it is a possibility – it didn't go at all the way the Broughton grad would have liked it to go.
He was struggling even before a hard fall under the basket after an Omer Yurtseven block left Robinson cradling his left elbow and knocked him out of the game for six minutes; he finished 4-for-20 for eight points, his lowest-scoring game since November and his fewest ever against a team from North Carolina.
Robinson's Old North State partner-in-crime, Havelock's Ky Bowman, had a game-high 21, but it wasn't nearly enough for the Eagles against a team that has beaten some of the best teams in the country and is now taking care of business in the games it's supposed to win.
“We found a way to win when I didn't think we were particularly sharp today,” Keatts said. “Even though you look at us, we scored 82 points, but I didn't think we played a flawless game at all. We were a little rusty for whatever reason.”
First Wake Forest on Saturday, now Boston College on Tuesday. The Wolfpack is quietly building itself a bigger margin for error with Florida State and Louisville left at home, with a trip to Georgia Tech in the middle. There's no reason N.C. State can't win the three remaining games on its regular-season schedule. Even if it doesn’t, a loss or two won’t kill the Wolfpack. That’s a good place to be this time of year.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock