N.C. State faced its first big test of the basketball season Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
A game against Wisconsin, in the Kohl Center? That’s a pretty big test.
The Wolfpack didn’t like the final result. The No. 22 Badgers rallied down the stretch for a 79-75 victory, but there was a lot of good in the play for the Pack, which led for most of the game.
“I learned a lot about my team today, coming into a hostile environment (against) a good program on their home floor,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said. “We obviously had opportunities to win. I’m disappointed that we lost but it’s lot of good things I can take from this.”
The final minutes were tense, exciting. The Badgers’ Ethan Happ, a preseason All-America, scored inside for a 72-71 lead with 2:20 left, only to have the Pack’s C.J. Bryce beat the shot clock with a jumper for a 73-72 lead at 1:45.
D’Mitrik Trice’s free throw tied it, and Happ was one of two at the line for a 74-73 lead. After the Pack’s Braxton Beverly missed a jumper, Trice’s jumper pushed the Badgers ahead 76-73.
“That’s a good player making a good play for his team,” Keatts said of Trice, who had 18 points.
Markell Johnson, so good for the Pack this night, was called for an offensive foul with 17.9 seconds remaining.. Johnson later scored again but the Badgers sealed it at the line.
Johnson had 21 points and five assists for State (6-1) and Bryce 18 points, while Torin Dorn finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Happ had 19 points and 11 boards for the Badgers. Wisconsin was 11-of-21 on 3-pointers -- draining six in the second half -- and limited its turnovers (11) against the Pack’s pressure defense.
“What a great game,” Keatts said. “Disappointed we lost but a lot of things to build on. It’s a tough place to play and we had an opportunity.”
The Badgers (6-1) already had faced one ACC challenge, matching up against Virginia in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas and losing 53-46. This was the Pack’s first game outside PNC Arena after six wins at home.
The first half ended just as the Pack hoped it would after a late timeout by Keatts. Johnson dribbled off the final 16 seconds, then popped in a run-off 3-pointer for a 36-29 lead.
Johnson opened up the second half with another 3 and Dorn added a jumper and it was 41-29, Pack. Had Johnson made his next 3, on a good look, the lead would have been 15.
It then briefly became a 3-point challenge -- Dorn, Bryce and Johnson draining long balls while Aleem Ford and Trice did the same for the Badgers. Trice hit four-of-five from the arc in the game and Ford four of seven.
The Pack led by 10 with 13 minutes left before junior Trevor Anderson sparked a Badgers rally. It also helped Wisconsin that the Pack made some poor decisions -- an offensive foul by Devon Daniels, a bad shot by Beverly.
Wisconsin trimmed the lead to 59-57 on a Ford 3 and again the crowd was loud. Bryce answered with a couple of baskets and Beverly a jumper for a 65-57 lead, but the Badgers responded with a mini-run to pull within 71-70 on a Happ shot with 3:20 left.
Other than a few too many fouls, Keatts couldn’t have asked for a much better-played first half from the Pack. With Dorn coming on big on the boards, the Wolfpack outrebounded the Badgers 22-14. The Pack shot 46.9 percent from the field to the Badgers’ 35.7, although Wisconsin did knock down five 3-pointers.
Whenever the Badgers made a push, getting the crowd revved up, the Pack countered. It was Johnson on a drive or rising high for a follow-jam of a Daniels miss -- an effort play that even had Badgers fans oohing. It was Dorn hitting a 3 from the wing or Beverly doing the same.
The Wolfpack brought some gaudy numbers into the game from its 6-0 start. State ranked 11th in Division I in scoring offense (90.8) and 15th in scoring defense (57.8).
The Pack had not allowed to top 30 percent on 2-pointers and limiting opponents to 23.4 percent shooting from the arc. The Pack was eighth nationally in turnover margin and sixth in rebounding margin (14.3 a game).
But the Badgers had some numbers to throw at the Pack. Wisconsin was ranked 12th according to KenPom.com, with the 19th-rated offense and seventh-rated defense. The Badgers were shooting 42.1 percent on 3s while allowing opponents to shoot 27.6 percent from the 3-point line.
Like the Pack, the Badgers were allowing 57.8 points a game defensively, and against stronger competition, and were averaging just nine turnovers a game, eighth best nationally.