The more Auburn’s players talked trash to Markell Johnson, the angrier he got.
The angrier Johnson got, the more he scored. The junior guard put up a career-high 27 points in N.C. State’s 78-71 win over No. 7 Auburn on Wednesday night.
It was the first win for N.C. State (10-1) over a ranked nonconference team at PNC Arena since the 2005-06 season (No. 12 George Washington) and first home win over a top-10 team from outside the ACC since the 1985-86 season (No. 8 Kentucky).
The normally reserved Johnson was unusually outwardly unemotional. He started hitting 3-pointers (a career-best five) and trading verbal jabs with Auburn guards Jared Harper and J’Von McCormick. It was “just talking” Johnson said and nothing that could be repeated under “PG-13” guidelines.
“I don’t even know those guys,” Johnson said. “I took it as they were coming in here to N.C. State and were trying to beat us. That just couldn’t happen.”
Johnson didn’t let it happen. With the game tied at 47-47, Johnson made a 3 at 9:47 in the second half. He followed that up with another 3, and was fouled by McCormick for a four-point play.
Feeling the need for a “heat check,” Johnson pulled up on a fastbreak for a transition 3 from the left wing and it swished through at 8:32 to push N.C. State’s lead to 57-49. Auburn (9-2) never got back in the game after that.
Guard Devon Daniels added 15 points, all in the second half, for the Wolfpack, who improved to 4-1 against top-10 teams under second-year coach Kevin Keatts.
Auburn helped the cause with 25 turnovers and couldn’t consistently take advantage of the mismatch inside for forwards Austin Wiley (13 points). The Tigers turned it over too much to do that. And took too many 3s (5 of 25).
N.C. State finished 10 of 22 from the 3-point line with Johnson and guard Braxton Beverly combining to go 9 of 13. Beverly made all of his 3s (4 of 5) in the first half while the Wolfpack jumped out to leads of 18-6 and 22-10.
The Tigers went on a 16-3 run to take a brief 26-25 lead at 2:50 in the first half but Johnson was able to manufacture two N.C. State baskets in the final 45 seconds to push the halftime margin back to 35-27.
It was that kind of night for Johnson. Every time Auburn tried to make a go of it, Johnson had the answer.
Senior Torin Dorn said Johnson was pumped for the matchup with a top-10 team.
“That’s what it is with Markell, he’s just a competitor and wants to be good,” Dorn said.
Being good includes being more emotional and vocal, even with trash talk. It also means being aggressive.
“I want Markell to stay aggressive,” Keatts said. “I think he has a chance to be one of the best guards in the country, when he stays aggressive.”
He was all of those things on Wednesday. Johnson credited Keatts with pulling out his emotional side.
“He kind of got it out of me this summer,” Johnson said.
And it’s paying off now for N.C. State.