As he walked across the Kohl Center court Tuesday night, having quickly shed his suit and tie for a more comfortable red Wolfpack warmup, N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts didn’t look or sound the part of a losing, despondent coach.
The Pack had just been beaten 79-75 by the Wisconsin Badgers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, in a game in which N.C. State led for almost 32 minutes in all. Losses always sting, especially when a shot here or a questionable charging call there could have been the difference. Such was the case Tuesday.
But Keatts was relatively upbeat. Disappointed to lose, certainly, but upbeat as he thought of the games to come and what could be this season.
“I’m proud of these guys,” he said. “You know, when you take so many new guys and put them in an environment like this, first true road game, for those guys to respond like they did ...
“If the ball bounces a different way or we get to the free-throw line a little bit more, it could have been a different outcome. But I’ve got to be proud of these guys. They fought. I thought their energy was great. It was a great environment and I thought our guys did a great job.”
The Pack’s first five wins this season, all at PNC Arena, were 40-minute breezes for Keatts and the players. Beating Mount St. Mary’s by 50 points or UNC Asheville by 51 did little to stress them.
Only Mercer last Saturday did that. The Pack had a 21-point second-half lead melt to two before Eric Lockett locked up a 78-74 win at the line to improve State’s record to 6-0.
Coming into the Kohl Center to face the Badgers, before a crowd of 17,000, was the kind of game that could test the true measure of the team. The Badgers were ranked 22nd nationally and led by 6-10 graduate center Ethan Happ, a preseason AP All-America.
In 2010, the Wolfpack came to Madison for the Challenge game and left with an humiliating 87-48 loss to the Badgers. Sidney Lowe was the Pack coach and Bo Ryan on the Wisconsin bench that season.
But this time, the Pack came to play. The Wolfpack, well-prepared, beat the Badgers on the boards. The players fought for loose balls. They kept their poise when calls didn’t go their way, when the Badgers knocked down long-range 3-pointers -- Wisconsin was 11-of-21 from the 3-point line -- to liven up the crowd.
The Badgers had 20 free throws to the Pack’s eight. N.C. State was called for 24 personal fouls and Wisconsin 12 in a game in which both teams were aggressive on defense. And almost won.
“I think we showed we can compete with anyone in the country,” the Pack’s C.J. Bryce said. “I definitely think we’re a top 25 team.”
That remains to be seen but the Pack has some ingredients that can make it a tough out every time out.
Markell Johnson has fast become a very dangerous guard with elite speed and an improved shot. Torin Dorn played like a man Tuesday, going hard to the boards, finishing with 11 rebounds. Bryce hit some clutch shots in scoring 18 points.
There are still some things that need smoothing out. Devon Daniels, the transfer from Utah, sometimes has a too-quick trigger finger and was called for a few offensive fouls looking to get off that shot. Braxton Beverly, who missed some practice time with a hand injury, doesn’t look completely comfortable with his shooting touch yet.
The Pack’s bigs, Wyatt Walker and Derek Funderburk, are effort guys but not always effective. Lockett, Blake Harris and Jericole Hellems are still finding out where they fit best and what their roles might be.
Keatts said Tuesday’s game, in many ways, felt like an ACC road game in February. It required that kind of focus and intensity, and in the end, with the game in the balance, was won by the team that made the most plays, that made the right decisions.
“We just didn’t execute down the stretch. Too many mental errors,” Dorn said.
But Dorn also believed it was the kind of game the Pack needed, one to prepare it for the rigors of stepping up in competition.
“Every game is a battle in the ACC,” Dorn said. “Any battles that you’re in and able to see what guys are going to fight and what guys are going to fold, playing in hostile environments, it will help you moving forward.”