Sluggish Wolfpack squashes USC-Upstate to improve 11-1

NC State’s Keatts: ‘This is why we’re called team’

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over USC Upstate at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Players coming off the bench scored 62 of the Pack's 98 points.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over USC Upstate at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Players coming off the bench scored 62 of the Pack's 98 points.

There was a message to what Kevin Keatts did with N.C. State’s substitution pattern on Saturday against South Carolina-Upstate.

Or there wasn’t. It just depends on you ask.

Either way, the Wolfpack followed up a huge win over No. 7 Auburn with a 98-71 win over USC-Upstate on Saturday.

Keatts swears he wasn’t sending a message when he yanked his starters midway through the first half and then made them watch for about 6 minutes as the backups carried the water.

“It wasn’t a message,” Keatts said. “I thought the other guys were playing better.”

Before he talked to the media about the Wolfpack's victory over USC Upstate at PNC Arena Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the meaning of the Christmas holiday.

The lineup of the five players off the bench — Blake Harris, Eric Lockett, Jericole Hellems, D.J. Funderburk and Devon Daniels —combined to score 62 points. Lockett, after not playing in Wednesday’s big win over No. 7 Auburn, had a season-high 15 points and set the tone for the second unit.

“I know we came out kinda flat,” Lockett said. “When (the second group) came in, we knew we had to pick it up on the defensive end and turn that into offense.”

Keatts actually made two line changes. At 16:09, with a 10-7 lead over the No. 330 team in the KenPom rankings, Keatts took out the starters. That was a normal sub, one Keatts has made in other nonconference games during the Wolfpack’s 11-1 start.

And then at 11:22, with the lead stretched out to 23-10, Keatts put the starters back. That didn’t last long. At 9:57, the backups went in. Keatts didn’t even look at Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, Braxton Beverly, C.J. Bryce or Wyatt Walker when they walked back to the bench.

After a minute, Keatts walked over and said something to the starters on the bench with a wave of his right hand. At least three of the players started to put their warmups back on, as if they were told they were not going back on the court any time soon.

There wasn’t a message there?

“No,” Keatts said. “I didn’t have to say anything. Maybe they just know me.”

Funderburk, who had 13 points in 19 minutes, understood the subtext to Keatts’ substitution pattern and the slow start.

“I think it was more so our defense and our energy,” Funderburk said. “The fans could even see we didn’t really have too much energy this game.

“He just really wanted to make a point, if you don’t have energy, you’re going to sit on the bench next to him.”

So the starters did, until Beverly was summoned back in at 7:18, for Harris, while the rest of the group was put back in with 4:09 left in the half. Keatts actually started walking towards the locker room before Walker’s layup with 1 second left gave the Wolfpack a 50-32 halftime lead.

There may or may not have been some yelling at halftime. According to Keatts, there was not.

“No. honestly there wasn’t,” Keatts said. “I don’t know if I’m getting older or not, but I don’t yell a lot. I used to.”

When Keatts does yell, Funderburk said, there’s a reason.

“If yells, he cares about you,” Funderburk said.

Was there “caring” at the half?

“Yeah, definitely,” Funderburk said. “There was a little bit of that.”

Either way, the non-message message was even clearer when the starting group sat to start the second half and didn’t play the first 4:30 minutes.

After the Spartans (4-9) cut the lead to 70-59 at 9:42 in the second half, it was Lockett who answered with consecutive 3s. Lockett took Wednesday’s benching, after playing at least 7 minutes in the first 10 games, in stride.

“I just trust the process and stay ready,” the grad transfer from Florida International said.

There wasn’t a disciplinary reason Lockett didn’t play against Auburn, Keatts said.

“He made me look like a bad coach,” Keatts said. “He’s a veteran guy. He has played a lot of games. He understands.”

And everyone seemed to get the message Saturday’s win.

“I’ve tried to create culture where it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” Keatts said. “We all get the credit.”

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Joe Giglio covers N.C. State and has worked at The N&O since 1995. He has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005.