N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts received a surprising text after the Wolfpack’s loss to North Carolina at PNC Arena.
Eric Lockett, who had not played in the game, was at the Dail Basketball Center on campus, Keatts was told. He was shooting, working on his game. After midnight.
“He could have easily went back and went out that night and partied, not happy with what happened,” Keatts said. “He didn’t do that. He never complained. The next time we went back in the gym he smiled and he worked hard.
“He’s a mature young man, he’s a guy who has graduated and is working on his master’s and a lot of our guys can learn a lot from that.”
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And from how Lockett responded Saturday against Pitt when Keatts called his name.
After center Wyatt Walker was ejected two minutes into the game, the Pack was missing a rebounder. Things turned even worse for No. 15 N.C. State when point guard Markell Johnson, who does so many things for the Pack, took a hard fall attempting to block a shot and had to leave the game in the first half.
The numbers game at that point for the Pack: five players on the floor, three on the bench. To beat the Panthers, a young, hungry team under first-year coach Jeff Capel, the Wolfpack needed a little more from everybody.
Lockett gave his team 17 points, playing a significant role in the Pack’s 86-80 victory. He hit six of nine shots from the field, making three of four 3-pointers. He had seven rebounds and two assists, making the most of his 22 minutes.
“I know I can play at this level and I’ll always be ready,” Lockett said.
After Pitt took a 58-53 lead in the second half, feeling it, seemingly gaining confidence with each passing minute, it was Lockett who drove the lane for a basket. And bigger things were ahead.
With the Panthers ahead 61-57, Lockett drained a 3-pointer. After the Panthers missed a 3, Lockett did it again. Swish, swish.
Lockett hit two free throws after an offensive rebound. He fed Torin Dorn for a 3-pointer. The Pack suddenly was the team feeling it, sensing victory.
“He didn’t play the last two games, in the conference, and to come in and save us, really, with 17 points and two back-to-backs 3s late in the game, that’s beautiful for me,” the Pack’s DJ Funderburk said. “Me personally, I’d have had my head down coming into this game. He showed something different.”
In truth, Lockett did play six minutes in State’s ACC opener, the 87-82 win against Miami. But they were a quiet six minutes: no points, two missed shots.
There was nothing quiet about Lockett’s game Saturday. Nor Funderburk’s, for that matter.
Funderburk filled up the stat sheet -- 18 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots. Six of his rebounds were on the offensive boards, giving the Pack another look, another chance. And all on effort plays.
“We knew they were a scrappy bunch,” Funderburk said of the Panthers. “We just tried to put that aside and play smart and play strong at the same time.”
The Pack did that, getting 19 points from Devon Daniels, a double-double from Dorn (12 points, 10 rebounds) and contributions from all eight.
“But nobody played bigger than the guy who didn’t play the last game, Eric Lockett,” Keatts said.
Lockett is a 6-5 graduate transfer from Florida International who scored a career-high 30 points nearly a year ago against Charlotte. He came to N.C. State with no guarantees other than Keatts would be tough but fair.
Lockett did not play in the Wolfpack’s biggest victory of the season, the 78-71 win over No. 7 Auburn on Dec. 19. In his next game, given 26 minutes, he had 15 points against USC Upstate.
That was his season high -- then. Now, he has a new one.
“It just happened,” Lockett said. “After ‘Kel’ went down and ‘Wy’ was out, people were going to have to step up and fill their roles. We banded together and got it done.”