N.C. State’s sixth win was nothing like its first five.
After winning by an an average of 38.4 points in its previous games, the Wolfpack held on for a 78-74 win over Mercer Saturday at the PNC Arena.
The unbeaten Wolfpack (6-0) had three players in double figures, led by Torin Dorn (19 points), C.J. Bryce (17), and Markell Johnson (16). Bryce surpassed the 1,000-point plateau in his career.
State led by as many as 21 points in the second half before surviving a late Mercer comeback. The Bears cut the margin to two points before reserve forward Eric Lockett made a pair of free throws with 5.5 seconds left to secure the win.
Djordje Dimitrijevic, who led Mercer with 25 points, including 19 in the second half, almost brought the Bears back singlehandedly. His final three buckets cut the Wolfpack lead to four points twice and finally to two points before the got no closer. His layup with seven second left cut the lead to 76-74 after Braxton Beverly missed a pair of free throws for the Wolfpack.
The Bears, who won 19 games last season, gave State its toughest contest so far in the young season. State’s previous five wins were blowouts with an average victory margin of 38.4 points, which was second in the NCAA. The Wolfpack’s closest game before this one was a 19-point win over Maine, 82-63, a week ago.
Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said this was the type of game his team needed.
“I don’t know that it makes me happy but it gives me the opportunity to take the tape and talk to the guys about end-of-game situations,” Keatts said. “We practice it. We talk about it. But unless you experience it during the game, it’s tough. We did some great things at the end. I thought we fouled too much. These are all teachable moments for us.”
Mercer (3-3) pushed State in the first half, leading for much of the first 20 minutes. The game also was tied seven times in the first half.
State’s first lead of the game came with 7:18 left in the first half when Devon Daniels hit one of two free throws to make it 24-23. Daniels, who started the Wolfpack’s first five games, finished with nine points, after coming off the bench for the first time.
Keatts said he wanted to give him a different look at the game.
The Wolfpack forced 15 Mercer turnovers in the first half but led only by five at the break, 37-32.
But they opened the second half with a 19-3 run to take control of the contest.
“We weren’t making our shots in the first half but we go clicking in the second half,” Dorn said. “We’re gonna have games like that when you start off well. What you just can’t let happen is the other team score. You’ve got to win a defensive battle.”
State’s biggest lead was 56-35 with 13:07 left.
The Wolfpack led by 20 points with just over 10 minutes to go. But Mercer clawed back from there and got to with five points down 64-59 with four and half to play. It was a close game the rest of the way.
”We just got a little stale with our second half,” Dorn said. “We’ve got to keep on moving forward so I think that’s why they were able to come back. Not every game is going to be a blowout.”
Beverly made his first start of the season after coming off the bench in the last four games.
He was 0 of 4 from the field, missing all of his 3-point attempts. Beverly had made at least two 3s in his first four games. Keatts joked after the game we have seen the last of Beverly’s prolific beard.
“Braxton Beverly will probably have to shave his beard now,” Keatts said. “I told him if he was 0 of 4, he was going to get rid of his beard. We’re going to have a conversation about it.”
Playing the last of six home games to start the season, the Wolfpack’s next game will be on the road at Wisconsin Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.