Kevin Keatts pleaded for his team to play together. He insisted the veteran players on his first N.C. State basketball team take a lead role.
Those things didn’t happen in N.C. State’s first two ACC games, resulting in losses at Clemson and Notre Dame by a combined 46 points.
Against No. 2 Duke on a magical Saturday night at PNC Arena, Keatts hopes and plans for this Wolfpack team came together in spectacular fashion.
N.C. State absorbed an early punch from Duke but, unlike those two road losses, punched back and stayed the aggressor all night in a 96-85 win.
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After two ugly losses, Keatts’ message got through.
“He said that once we determined that we are tired of getting beat that we won’t get beat any more,” N.C. State junior forward Torin Dorn said. “So we came out here focused and we were able to get a win.”
After shooting 34.8 percent in a 78-62 loss at Clemson and 36.7 percent while losing 88-58 at Notre Dame, the Wolfpack shot 51.7 percent against Duke.
Ball movement made the difference. N.C. State had 17 assists on its 34 field goals. Its interior trio of 7-0 sophomore Omer Yurtseven and 6-8 seniors Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu combined for 39 points.
N.C. State put seven players in double figures, with Dorn and Yurtseven scoring 16 points each.
“I sat down with every guard and told them if we are going to be successful with this group of guys that we have, we have to play off each other,” Keatts said. “I thought everybody made the right passes. I thought everybody played very unselfish.”
Allerik Freeman, a graduate transfer from Baylor, played his first ACC game at PNC Arena. The Wolfpack’s leading scorer this season at 15.3 points per game, Freeman made just 10 of 35 shots in the losses at Clemson and Notre Dame.
He took a far different approach against Duke, a patient one. Freeman was right on par with his 15 points, but he got them by getting to the free-throw line and making all seven of his free throws. He had more assists (five) than made field goals (four).
His adjustment proved to be a major plus for N.C. State.
Guards Braxton Beverly and Lavar Batts, two freshmen, were sturdy. Each had five assists. Beverly scored 14 points and turned the ball over just twice. Batts committed no turnovers in his 19 minutes off the bench.
“When you look at both he and Braxton, they both are babies in the ACC,” Keatts said. “They have both been forced to grow up quick. They both are doing a good job with it.”
Yurtseven showed once again how far he’s progressed. In his second season with the Wolfpack, he went toe-to-toe with Duke freshman Marvin Bagley, who just could be the No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA Draft.
Yes, Bagley scored 31 points and had 10 rebounds. Yurtseven fouled out.
But Keatts was thrilled with Yurtseven’s perseverance. He took more shots than any NC State player (14) and made eight of them. He grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots.
“The competition and the challenge,” Yurtseven said. “In the challenge, rise. I just responded to it.”
Keatts and the Wolfpack saw Duke take 27-16 lead in the first half. In the first two ACC losses, the Wolfpack trailed by nine and 12 points at halftime and never pushed the opposition. But against Duke, the Wolfpack reeled off 15 consecutive points to erase that 11-point deficit and lead 43-41 at halftime.
Duke never led in the second half.
Finally, the Wolfpack took Keatts’ challenge and did something about it.
“He just said I’m waiting for you all to respond,” Yurtseven said. “We’ve been having amazing practices. Then we go to Notre Dame and lost after those practices. We have great practices and I’m like, ‘We are really good. Why is this not going into the games?’ Today it did.”
The Wolfpack (11-5, 1-2ACC) now owns two wins over teams ranked No. 2 in the country entering the game. N.C. State beat Arizona 90-84 when the Wildcats held that ranking on Nov. 22.
Togetherness is the only way N.C. State can produce wins like these while avoiding the ugly losses.
“When we go out there and focus and execute and do what we are supposed to do,” Abu said. “They sky is the limit. I feel like going forward, that’s the energy and focus we are going to take.”