NC State’s Keatts talks about win over Pitt and the play of Eric Lockett
This N.C. State team is making a habit out of winning games previous versions could not.
The 86-80 comeback win against Pittsburgh, while missing two starters, on Saturday was the latest for Kevin Keatts’ squad.
At Miami, after falling behind by double-digits in the second half, and surviving a November close call with Mercer, also qualify as wins which make this N.C. State team different.
Keatts is hoping the trend continues on Tuesday when the 17th-ranked Wolfpack (14-2, 2-1 ACC) travels to Wake Forest (7-8, 0-3).
Winston-Salem has mostly been unkind to N.C. State’s revenue teams recently. Keatts led the Wolfpack to a road win there last season but N.C. State had lost eight of its previous 10 trips to Joel Coliseum.
N.C. State is preparing to face the struggling Demon Deacons without guard Markell Johnson, who crashed to the floor after a block attempt at 9:45 in the first half of the Pitt win. The 6-1, 175-pound junior guard didn’t return to the game.
Keatts said that Johnson, who is second on the team in scoring (11.6 points per game), has not practiced the past two days.
“He’s sore,” Keatts said. “He fell on his left hip and the left side of his back. He took a pretty nasty fall.”
Johnson will be a “game-time decision,” Keatts said. Guards Braxton Beverly and Blake Harris would eat up most of Johnson’s minutes, if Johnson can’t play. Junior wing C.J. Bryce also ran the offense for stretches of Saturday’s win.
N.C. State trailed Pitt 58-53 with 9 minutes left in the game and was without Johnson or starting big man Wyatt Walker. Walker was ejected 2 minutes into the game for tripping Pitt guard Xavier Johnson.
Walker does not face any additional punishment from the ACC and will be available to play against the Deacs. Keatts said Walker, who was trying to take a charge on the collision with Johnson, apologized for making the undisciplined mistake.
“He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m so sorry,’” Keatts said. “’I feel like I let my team down. I overreacted and I shouldn’t have done it.’”
Sophomore forward D.J. Funderburk and Eric Lockett, a grad transfer, picked up the slack against Pitt. Funderburk had 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocks while Lockett added 17 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
N.C. State has been able to take some bumps and handle some downturns this season. The 78-74 win over Mercer on Nov. 24 wasn’t all that different from early-season nonconference tests to UNC-Greensboro last season and other similar home losses in the past few years to William & Mary, Wofford, or N.C. Central in recent seasons.
This group doesn’t get deterred or down. It trailed Miami 74-64 on Jan. 3 before rallying for a 87-82 road win. Even in the 90-82 home loss to North Carolina last Tuesday, it climbed out of an early 14-point hole and kept fighting.
The game at Wake Forest presents another type of test. N.C. State doesn’t win that often at Wake Forest, even when the Deacs are struggling.
But Keatts has a different approach. He said he doesn’t mention a team’s record when it’s time to prepare for the game.
“Every team in this league is capable of beating you, especially on their home floor,” Keatts said. “You’ll never hear us say, ‘This team is 0-3 or 3-0’ we just concentrate on our next opponent and what we need to do to be successful.”