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NC State struggles on offense, loses at Clemson in ACC opener

Keatts needs more from big men following ACC loss to Clemson

N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, after losing his first ACC game as a head coach 78-62 at Clemson, wants more from senior big men Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu to help the Wolfpack.
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N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, after losing his first ACC game as a head coach 78-62 at Clemson, wants more from senior big men Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu to help the Wolfpack.

Opening ACC play without suspended starting point guard Markell Johnson was tough enough for N.C. State on Saturday.

When big men sophomore center Omer Yurtseven and senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu got into foul trouble, it was too much for the Wolfpack to overcome in coach Kevin Keatts’ first league game as N.C. State’s coach.

Clemson built a nine-point halftime lead and pulled away from the cold-shooting Wolfpack in the second half to beat N.C. State 78-62 at Littlejohn Coliseum.

N.C. State (10-4, 0-1 ACC) played its fourth consecutive game without Johnson, the sophomore from Cleveland who was suspended Dec. 14 after he was indicted on felonious assault charges in Ohio.

Without him, the Wolfpack never found a groove offensively. N.C. State shot 27 percent in the first half and finished at 34.8 percent for the game.

Yurtseven, the 7-0 sophomore center, and Abu, N.C. State’s 6-8 senior forward, gave the Wolfpack scoring, rebounding and defense inside Saturday. But that was only when they were on the court and not sitting out with foul trouble.

Both picked up two fouls in the first half and their time on the bench together late in the first half allowed Clemson (12-1, 1-0) to lead 33-24 at intermission.

Yurtseven finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots. Abu played just 15 minutes because of his four fouls. He finished with four points and three rebounds.

All five Clemson starters reached double figures, led by guard Marcquise Reed with 18 points. Gabe Devoe added 15 points, Shelton Mitchell 14, Donte Grantham 13 and forward Elijah Thomas had 10 points with 10 rebounds.

After shooting 34.3 percent in the first half, the Tigers made 17 of 32 second-half shots to finish at 43.3 percent for the game.

N.C. State shot 27.3 percent in the first half, making just 2 of 10 3-pointers, as Clemson built a nine-point halftime lead.

The Wolfpack was still within eight points when Lennard Freeman scored inside with 13:18 to play leaving Clemson with a 48-40 lead.

But N.C. State would hit just one field goal over the next seven minutes of play, and the Tigers pulled away with a 14-3 run.

N.C. State’s half-court defense had been tight in the first half when Clemson shot just 34 percent. But the Tigers began finding open passing lanes to convert points in the lane.

Interior players Donte Grantham and Mark Donnal had dunks during the run. Guard Marcquise Reed got free inside for a pair of baskets off entry passes. The second of his back-to-back scores put the Tigers up 62-43 with 8:25 to play.

In the first half, both teams struggled to score as jump shots refused to fall. Clemson, though, took advantage of Abu and Yurtseven’s foul trouble to outscore the Wolfpack 13-2 over the final five minutes of the half to lead 33-24 at halftime.

Relying on points inside, N.C. State jumped to an early 8-2 lead and led 20-18 when Lennard Freeman rebounded Lavar Batts’ missed layup to score with 6:02 left in the half.

But that would be the final field goal the Wolfpack made in the first half.

With Yurtseven already on the bench with two fouls, Abu sank two free throws with 5:09 left giving the Wolfpack a 22-20 lead.

But Abu picked up his second foul with 4:03 left in the half and joined Yurtseven on the bench. That left the Wolfpack to use Lennard Freeman as the lone true big with 6-5 Torin Dorn at power forward.

Clemson took advantage, both by finding its way to points at the rim but also with N.C. State unable to score from the field. After Abu’s free throws gave the Wolfpack its last lead, the team went scoreless on seven of its final eight possessions before halftime.

Forward Elijah Thomas hit two free throws, and guard Marcquise Reed hit a 3-pointer to put Clemson ahead for good at 25-22.

Thomas added another basket, and Dorn made two free throws for N.C. State.

But a pair of Donte Grantham free throws, a Reed layup and Grantham’s basket in the lane at the buzzer gave the Tigers their nine-point halftime lead.

Lennard Freeman said he and fellow senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu need to play better in their final seasons with the NC State Wolfpack. Both struggled in a 78-62 loss at Clemson on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC