NC State trailed by six with 35 seconds remaining but found a way to beat Clemson, 69-67, Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena after a walk-off three-pointer from sophomore guard Braxton Beverly.
The Wolfpack, looking to avoid a two-game losing streak, got some help from Clemson’s Marcquise Reed, who missed four straight from the foul line in the last 13 seconds.
That set up the final sequence for N.C. State, which improved to 16-4 overall and 4-3 in the ACC with Virginia coming to town on Tuesday. The Wolfpack, now 9-3 at home in the ACC under head coach Kevin Keatts, led most of the second half, but Clemson battled back to tie the game at 49 with 8:14 remaining. The next time State took the lead would be for good as Beverly hit the game winner.
Here are the keys to victory for the Wolfpack:
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Markell Johnson returns
Markell Johnson missed the previous three games with a back injury, but returned just in time for the Wolfpack.
The junior guard from Cleveland entered the game against Clemson at the 15:39 mark and immediately got an assist. Johnson’s biggest impact came in the second half. He hit back-to-back 3s to make it a one-point game, 58-57, with 3:27 remaining. He then scored four in a row to make it a one possession game, 67-64, with 19 seconds remaining.
Johnson finished with a team-high 16 points in 23 minutes of action on Saturday.
“It gives us a guy who can, number one, pass the ball,” Keatts said. “He’s a veteran, they listen to him. It also gives us a guy who can score when when (needed).”
Johnson scored 14 after halftime. Keatts came into the game expecting to play Johnson about 10 minutes, but Johnson felt better as the game went on.
“I was feeling really well (in the second half),” Johnson said. “I just had to get back into the flow, I hadn’t got up and down (the floor) that much in practice and things like that.”
Johnson didn’t know if he would play on Saturday, saying it was all based on how he felt once he got to the arena. He warmed up on the floor two hours before tip-off and talked with Keatts and the training staff and felt like he was good to go. His teammates felt a boost with him back.
“It was really nice for us,” senior Torin Dorn said. “He’s one of our better players so it’s always good to have a guy like that back. He makes a lot of big shots and a lot of things happen for us.”
Dorn added that the offense flows better with the return of Johnson, who led the ACC in assists a year ago.
“He can spread the ball around and make shots,” Dorn said. “It helps us.”
NC State pressing defense
Keatts joked after the game that he has to do a better job educating the fans who left PNC Arena early when the Pack were down six with 35 seconds remaining.
N.C. State is a full-court pressing team, and that leads Keatts to believe that they always have a chance. While the full court pressure didn’t result in a lot of forced turnovers, it wore down the Tigers, and Keatts believes that is why Clemson missed six of eight free throws down the stretch.
“I think it’s just our playing style,” Dorn said. “We play with high energy the whole game and I think guys are just fatigued when it comes to the end.”
The Wolfpack forced 15 Clemson turnovers, which led to 13 points.
“When you’re a pressing team, believe it or not, I never thought we were out of the game,” Keatts said. “I thought because we can press and we can make shots, we have every opportunity to win the game. I thought our guys did a great job executing down the stretch. We don’t always press to get steals, we press for these type of situations as well.”
Fresh legs after Louisville
N.C. State returned to Raleigh around 1:30 AM Friday after playing at Louisville. With the quick turnaround, Keatts said this game was one of his hardest to scout.
The second-year coach had a choice to make: Shoot around before the 2 p.m. tip-off, or let his team get some rest. The coaching staff watched film most of Friday and Keatts decided to not do a shoot-around the morning of the game. Keatts typically doesn’t do them for noon games, and 2 p.m. games are a “50-50 call.”
He decided he wanted his guys to have fresh legs at the end of the game versus Clemson and it paid off.
Only nine players saw action against the Tigers, with eight playing 17 minutes or more. Three -- C.J. Bryce, Dorn and Beverly, played at least 30 minutes for the second straight game.
N.C. State’s bench came into Saturday averaging 34.1 points per game. The reserves scored 28 points against Clemson, led by Johnson’s16. The Wolfpack scored just 11 points off the bench against Louisville. They had 12 in the first half against Clemson, with half of those coming from guard Devon Daniels, who averages 10.5 points per game for the Wolfpack.
With the performance by Johnson, who is usually a starter, the N.C. State bench now has 28 individual double-digit performances off the bench this season, led by D.J. Funderburk, who has scored in double-digits nine times this season.