Markell Johnson sparks NC State to win over Vanderbilt

At some point, N.C. State point guard Markell Johnson decided it was time to take over.

With the Wolfpack nursing a four-point lead over Vanderbilt in the Hoophall Miami Invitational, Johnson, who spent most of the day setting up teammates, decided it was time to dominate.

Johnson scored 12 straight points to light a fire under his team, coming up big down the stretch as N.C. State secured a 80-65 win. Johnson only had four points at halftime but finished with 19 after a series of drives to the basket in which the Commodores had no answer for. Johnson’s personal run pushed the Wolfpack lead to 11 after Vandy pulled to within two late in the second half.

N.C. State dominated the first half, but needed Johnson to get out of second-half funk. State only had two first-half turnovers, but had five in the first three minutes of the second half.

Not only were they turning the ball over, but the Wolfpack went cold, shooting 5-19 from the field leading into the first media timeout. While State struggled, Vandy got going, outscoring State 24-14 in the second half before Johnson took over the scoring duties. At one point it looked like Kevin Keatts would be without Johnson, who went to the bench with a leg injury briefly in the second half. Once he returned, it took a while to get into a flow, but once one went down, Johnson was unstoppable.

“I think he’s maturing,” Keatts said about Johnson, his junior floor general. “I thought Markell was really aggressive. One thing a lot of young players will do when they have a lead is play back on their heels until the clock runs out, but he was aggressive, he got in the paint and made the right plays, and certainly it worked out well in our favor.”

When he returned from the bench after hurting his leg, Johnson saw his team was struggling and knew what had to be done.

“I saw that we weren’t scoring that much,” Johnson said. “My coaches told me to be way more aggressive and that’s what I did.”

Torin Dorn, the veteran leader on this team, knew to get the ball to the hot hand when Johnson gets in a zone like that.

“Markell is a talented guy,” Dorn said. “I’ve been telling down the stretch, being the point guard, him taking over is something that we need as a team.”

N.C. State never trailed in the first half, scoring the first two buckets of the game, only to watch Vanderbilt counter with not one, but two, old-fashioned three-point plays to make it a one-point game (8-7). That would be as close as the Commodores turned the ball over 10 times in the opening 20 minutes.

Leading into the first media timeout, the Wolfpack were shooting 75 percent from the floor and scored six straight leading into the next break in action. Vanderbilt didn’t do themselves any favors, turning the ball over on consecutive possessions, one of which led to a Markell Johnson no look pass to DJ Funderburk, who threw the ball down to give N.C. State a 17-9 lead.

N.C. State’s defensive pace was so good that it made up for their mistakes on the other end. C.J. Bryce turned the ball over on one end, but hit a jumper the next trip down the floor to make Keatts quickly forget the mistake.

With under eight minutes remaining in the half it reached that stretch where it felt like something good needed to happen for the Wolfpack before Vandy got back in the came, but Dorn showed some senior leadership, hitting two jumpers in a row, followed by a Johnson layup and two more freebies from Dorn.

Vandy did cut the lead to four lead with freshman forward Simisola Shittu (15 points), who scored six straight, including a wide open dunk, but State didn’t bend, once again forcing back-to-back turnovers, and getting a jumper from the right wing from freshman Jericole Hellems. State did go cold from the field during the final minute, missing three straight layups, but Funderburk hit a pair of free throws to keep the Wolfpack on the board.

“I never thought we showed any panic,” Keatts said. “Obviously, every time we play we want to mature in different ways. You know, 72 hours ago we wouldn’t have been the same team finishing it out.”

Johnson was one of three Wolfpack players in double figures. Funderburk finished with 16, while Dorn finished with 10. Hellems added 9 off the bench as the N.C State reserves outscored Vandy 37-21.

“The bench was big,” Keatts said. “I thought our guys came in and did a tremendous job. C.J. Bryce came in off the bench, Jericole Hellems was really big, D.J. Funnderburk, we need our bench to play well.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.