N.C. State’s Markell Johnson strolled onto the court at the KFC Yum! Center in his warmups well before Thursday’s game against Louisville.
But Johnson quickly found seat to watch his teammates. The junior point guard was to miss a third straight game with a back injury, forcing the Pack again to play an ACC game without its floor leader and most dynamic player.
The No. 21 Wolfpack needed him against the Cardinals. No. 23 Louisville, a tough, competitive team under first-year coach Chris Mack, took an 84-77 victory to stretch its ACC winning streak to four straight.
“As I told my team after the game, what another tough ACC battle and what a great game it was,” Pack coach Kevin Keatts said. “I thought both teams played extremely hard. Chris has done a really good job with his team and the program where it is right now..
“The story of the game for us, the telltale for us, is we turned the ball over 23 times, which is really not characteristic of us.”
In a game with a lot of ebbs and flows, with well-run offensive sets and awful turnovers, Louisville (14-5, 5-1 ACC) had just enough to win, with five players in double figures led by Christen Cunningham’s 17 points. The Cards converted the Pack’s turnovers into 37 points, and hit 24 of 29 free throws.
“Their style of play really tries to turn you over,” Mack said. “For them to have more turnovers than we did .... I thought we kept the floor crowded as much as we could.”
The Pack’s Braxton Beverly, playing before a lot of friends and family from Hazard, Ky., finished with 19 points. But his offensive foul, on a drive with 46.4 seconds left and the Pack trailing 77-75, was a big call and he then fouled the Cards’ Ryan McMahon, who hit two free throws.
“It’s their home, they play well here,” Beverly said. “They’ve got a really good crowd that’s behind them. But I give credit to them. They played really hard, really well. It was a fun game to be a part of. We just came up on the short end.”
Torin Dorn had 18 points and C.J. Bryce 15 for the Pack (15-4, 3-3), which hosts Clemson on Saturday in a short turnaround. N.C. State had just seven free throws, hitting five, while finishing with four more field goals than the Cards.
It was a tough return game for Keatts, once a Louisville assistant under former coach Rick Pitino. His team played hard for the most part, but was undone by the many turnovers and a reluctance, Keatts said, to share the ball.
The Pack did a good job in limiting the Cards’ Jordan Nwora, who had scored 32 and 25 points in the past two games. The 6-7 sophomore had 13 points, five below his average, on 3-of-12 shooting from the field and 0-7 from the 3-point line.
“The year he’s having, he’s playing as well as anybody in the conference, as a matter of fact at an all-conference level,” Keatts said. “We wanted to force him into tough shots and be there on the catch, and I thought our guys did a great job of that.”
The Cardinals, after leading 42-41 at the half, had a second start to the second half. The Pack scored on just two of its first nine possessions -- a Beverly 3 and putback by DJ Funderburk -- while the Cards surged.
Louisville led 61-51, only to have the Pack rally. A 3-pointer by Beverly and fast-break score by Eric Lockett ended a 10-0 run and tied the score 61-61.
The Cards spurted ahead again as Dwayne Sutton and Steven Enoch knocked down 3s late in the shot clock. When Khwan Fore popped in a jumper, it was 75-69 and Keatts ordering up a timeout.
“When they made their run I thought (the fans) got loud and I thought their guys fed off it,” Keatts said.
When the Pack wasn’t turning the ball over and rushing things in the first half, it was making shots. And especially Dorn, who had 14 points.
The Pack did not have a 3-pointer in the first 11 minutes, then started draining shots from the arc after falling behind 20-10. Beverly and Devon Daniels each knocked down a pair and C.J. Bryce another 3 as the Wolfpack put together a 28-12 run for a 38-32 lead, making 10 of 11 shots in the spurt.
Then, more turnovers for N.C. State. Daniels, who had an error-prone game, had a travel, then an offensive foul.
In the final moments of the half, the Pack set up for a final shot, only to have Daniels pick up another offensive foul -- N.C. State’s 14th turnover in the half. The Cards converted the Pack mistakes into 21 points in the first half .
Keatts orchestrated the defense in the first half, as he usually does, and the Cards had their problems at times running their sets. Nwora, coming off his 25-point game in the road win at Georgia Tech, missed four of five shots in the opening half, getting six of his eight points at the foul line.
The Pack shot 55.2 percent from the field in the opening half and played most of the half without Funderburk, who was benched most of the period with two fouls.