NC State's Keatts: 'I'm very proud of our guys'
North Carolina State big man Omer Yurtseven scored a career-high 19 points and collected 11 rebounds as the Wolfpack defeated Penn State 85-78 as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Yurtseven was one of four NC State players in double figures as Allerik Freeman (17), Sam Hunt (14) and Leonard Freeman (10) helped with the heavy lifting. But it was Yurtseven’s strong second half to spark the Wolfpack (6-2) to end a two-game losing streak.
The sophomore center scored 12 points in the second half as NC State held off a late run by Penn State in the final three minutes. After one free throw from Jamari Wheeler made it a two possession game, Tony Carr nailed a three-pointer to cut the Pack lead to three with less than three minutes remaining. But Allerik Freeman hit a deep two to give NC State, who led by as many as 13, some breathing room. The Pack still weren’t out of the woods. Two more freebies from Carr, game-high 29 points, gave State a three-point lead with 52.3 seconds remaining. But a pair of Braxton Beverly free throws all but sealed the deal. The Nittany Lions had to foul the rest of the way and the Pack hit six of eight free throws down the stretch.
The Wolfpack started the game 0-for-7 from the field with two turnovers, trailing 11-0 at the first official time out. NC State didn’t get on the board until the 14:33 mark when Allerik Freeman hit a jump shot from the left wing. The Wolfpack forced a turnover, then got a three from Hunt to make it 11-5, finally showing some signs of life on both ends, forcing turnovers on two of the next four Nittany Lion possessions.
“I thought that was a great team win for us,” Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts said. “We didn’t want to go on a three-game losing streak, I’m a guy who believes in streaks and certainly our guys responded. I thought we came out real flat for whatever reason. The biggest deference was when we got Sam Hunt in the game and Omer came in and we were able to get going.”
The ball finally started to find the bottom of the net for the Pack as NC State hit three consecutive three-pointers - one each from Hunt, Lavar Batts, Jr. and Yurtseven - to pull to within four, 18-14, with 11:01 remaining in the half. That seemed to get the Wolfpack going. It also helped that Penn State suddenly went cold from the field. NC State took its first lead of the game, 25-24, on a dunk from Yurtseven. The Lions answered on the other end with a slam from Satchel Pierce to briefly retake a one-point lead at the 6:05 mark, but that would be their final field goal of the first half as NC State ended the first half on a 12-6 run. Penn State got four free throws in the final six minutes, while the Wolfpack defense forced four turnovers down the stretch to take a 37-30 lead into the locker room at the break.
It wasn’t pretty in the opening 20 minutes as the teams combined for 17 turnovers and each squad suffering from serious scoring droughts; NC State’s nine straight empty possessions to start the game and Penn State’s inability to score in the final six minutes of the first half. The Wolfpack scored six in a row to gain some momentum heading into the break.
“In the second half we came out aggressive and started playing,” Keatts said.
It was announced before the game that senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu would miss the contest due to soreness in his right knee and Darius Hicks would be out for the season after tearing his ACL in practice this week. That meant Keatts only had nine players available and the first-year coach stuck with a six-man rotation for majority of the game. Markell Johnson started the game, but only played five minutes in the first half, while reserve point guard Batts, Jr. only logged four. Keatts settled on a lineup led by Hunt and Allerik Freeman in the back court with Beverly, with Torin Dorn and Leonard Freeman up front with Yurtseven coming off the bench.
A three-pointer from Batts gave the Wolfpack their biggest lead of the second half, 66-55, with eight minutes remaining in the game. NC State also got a spark from Yurtseven, who threw down a dunk, off an assist from Johnson, and followed that with a three from the top of the key midway through the second half. While Hunt and Allerik Freeman led the way in the first half, the second half belonged to Yurtseven, the 7-footer from Turkey, who knocked down three-pointers and scored around the basket at will against the Penn State front line after halftime. Yurtseven, who has scored in double-figures in seven of NC State’s eight games this season, hit six of his seven shots from the floor and shot 100 percent from three in the win. His three made threes is also a new career-high. His performance against the Nittany Lions also marked his third career double-double. The confidence of Yurtseven is growing Keatts said, but his teammates say it’s no surprise to them.
“He had a beast game,” Hunt said. “He controlled the boards, I think he hit two threes back-to-back, he looked really good, but we see it everyday in practice, it’s just about him doing it during the game every night.”
The Pack is now 7-11 all-time in the Challenge.
“I’m proud of our guys, I’m proud of N.C. State,” Keatts said. “But we also got another win for the ACC.”