With the ACC’s regular season fast approaching an end, it’s finally March, when basketball teams want to be at their best.
N.C. State wasn’t always at its best Saturday. Neither was Florida State, but the 18th-ranked Seminoles were able to pull out a 78-73 victory.
Beating the Seminoles at the Tucker Center is no easy task. FSU now is 48-3 in its last 51 games at home — 25-3 in ACC games — and FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has a deep, balanced team.
But N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts has a hustling, gritty team and the Pack (20-9, 8-8 ACC) played it that way again Saturday. The Wolfpack never led. Nor did it let Florida State break away.
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“This is what you call a typical ACC blowout, a five-point victory,” Hamilton quipped after the game. “They’re fundamentally sound and play extremely hard. We were never really comfortable with their defensive pressure.”
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly pulled the Pack into a 63-63 tie with 6:44 left in the second half. FSU spurted to a 68-63 lead, but DJ Funderburk (18 points), Torin Dorn and Johnson countered for N.C. State.
When Johnson knocked down another 3, the Pack was within 72-70 with 2:59 remaining. Yet another 3 by Johnson made it 76-73 FSU, with 57 seconds left in regulation and Devon Daniels then blocked an FSU shot.
The Pack had a final possession and called a timeout with 15.9 seconds to go. But FSU wouldn’t allow another 3-point shot. Beverly was fouled with 8.9 seconds remaining, missing the front end of a one-and-one, allowing the Noles (23-6, 11-5) to survive.
“We had the game in our hands down the stretch and we just didn’t come up with it at the end,” Funderburk said,
FSU made 19 of 21 free throws in the second half -- Mfiondu Kabengele making seven of eight in scoring a team-high 16 points -- to seal the victory while the Pack was 5-of-6 in the half.
“I thought they did a great job of taking care of homecourt advantage,” Keatts said. “I thought we had our chances, especially late in the second half. We cut the lead and it seemed like every time we cut the the lead I thought they did a great job of making a play, whether it was an offensive rebound or getting a steal.
“I thought the second half, the big difference in the game, I thought they got to the free-throw line more than we did in the second half. And obviously some of the 50-50 plays.”
The Pack trailed 43-39 early in the second half when Johnson picked up a fourth foul. Johnson, coming off his 25-point game against Wake Forest, had been called for a technical foul in the final minute of the first half.
But Dorn, scoreless in the first half after picking up two early fouls, began assert himself offensively in the second half. Dorn had 10 points in the first nine minutes of the final half, keeping the Pack close.
“I just wanted to come out aggressive, make plays and help the team,” Dorn said.
Funderburk, one of the ACCs more underrated players, also gave the Pack some fierce play around the basket and stepped outside for a 3-pointer in the second half. His 18 points matched his career high.
The Noles blocked nine shots -- four by Kabengele and three by 7-4 center Christ Koumadje -- when the Pack challenged them in the lane. FSU also had 12 of its 14 fast-break points in the second half.
“I thought our guys were locked in today,” Hamilton said. “We maintained a tremendous amount of poise.”
The first half offered mostly rough, ragged basketball. Neither team would allow the other much space, leading to a lot of shoves and slaps. The Pack missed 22 of its 30 shots from the field in the half but stayed close by forcing 10 FSU turnovers, hustling around the boards against the taller Noles and getting 18 points off the bench.
FSU took a 21-13 lead with eight minutes left in the half, leading to a Wolfpack timeout. At that point, the Pack was 4-19 from the field. But after the timeout, Jericole Hellems drained a 3-pointer from the key and the Pack used a 10-2 spurt for a 23-23 tie.
After Johnson was called for the technical foul with 25 seconds left in the half, Keatts, not happy, had a few words with the guard during an FSU timeout.
The Noles again built a nine-point lead early in the second half before Beverly, who had been given few openings offensively, hit his first 3-pointer of the game in transition.