While beating the tar out of teams by 30 points is always fun, Kevin Keatts knew deep down inside his first N.C. State basketball team needed a test.
After all, the Wolfpack has to tip off with No. 3-ranked Arizona on Wednesday at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas. That is no day at the beach.
Neither was Thursday night’s game with Presbyterian, one of Division I college basketball’s worst teams coming off a 5-25 season.
On the way to the expected lopsided win, Keatts’ Wolfpack got something it needed when the Blue Hose took a 44-36 halftime lead.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I’m excited about this bunch because I thought we got better because we passed a test tonight,” Keatts said.
Thursday’s win gave the Wolfpack four in a seven-night stretch. None of them were against the kind of teams N.C. State will see in ACC play or even the next time it takes the court against Arizona.
But facing adversity for the first time with the halftime deficit against Presbyterian forced the Wolfpack to look deep inside and not panic. Presbyterian shot 60 percent in the first half and only turned the ball over seven times while navigating the Wolfpack press.
“Take it personal,” N.C. State senior forward Lennard Freeman said. “They are shooting 60 percent. Take some pride in our defense. We came out the second half, forced a lot of turnovers and turned the game around.”
N.C. State had seen VMI, Charleston Southern and Bryant average 24 turnovers per game. Presbyterian finished the night with 22 because the Wolfpack tightened things up dramatically early in the second half.
The Wolfpack was the team with the built-in excuse about fatigue. Four games in seven nights allows that. Instead, armed with the superior athletes, N.C. State played harder and more effectively after halftime to run away from the overmatched Blue Hose.
The Wolfpack needed only two second-half possessions to cut the Presbyterian lead in half. The Blue Hose still led by five points when N.C. State’s defense finally proved to be a game-changer.
The Blue Hose went six consecutive possessions without scoring. Five of those trips down the court ended with a turnover.
“They way we play is that we feel like toward the end of the game most teams won’t have the legs that we have,” Keatts said. “I felt it worked on our favor. I thought our conditioning kicked in. We were the fresher team toward the end and I was happy about that.”
Lennard Freeman’s play is another reason for Keatts and the Wolfpack to be happy. The big guy missed all of last season with a leg injury but he’s been dominant in these early games.
The 6-8 senior scored 23 points against Presbyterian, hitting 9 of 12 shots, while grabbing seven rebounds. He’s scoring more and more each game. After starting the season with 15 points against VMI, he tallied just seven against Charleston Southern before a career-best 20 against Bryant.
Thursday night’s performance established yet another career high in points.
His final year of college basketball is going as well as he could have hoped.
“That was the plan,” Freeman said. “I knew this was my last year and I knew I had worked extremely hard. That was just it. I worked hard for it. I was told if you work hard for something you should get it.”
Hard work paid off, for Freeman individually and the Wolfpack as a whole, in a tougher-than-expected win on Thursday night.
There are bigger, tougher battles to come. But Keatts program has taken the baby steps needed to prepare well for them