NC State's Freeman: 'We just gotta keep playing hard, keep getting better'
The reality check was supposed to be another six days away, on a tropical island that would at least help soften the blow. It was going to take a monumental effort for N.C. State to upset Arizona on Wednesday. Everyone knew that. But Presbyterian?
The 344th-ranked team in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings – out of 351 – Presbyterian looked like just another chapter in N.C. State’s historically easy nonconference schedule, having already lost at Tennessee by 35.
Instead, after three generally easy wins to open the season, the Wolfpack found itself down eight at the half, trailing with 13 minutes to go and its much-discussed defensive improvement largely absent. Bryant had taken a big early lead on N.C. State, but it didn’t last. This was something else entirely.
The Wolfpack would eventually dial in its press and the quality of its ACC athletes would prove telling, Lennard Freeman blocking two shots at one end and Markell Johnson driving the lane for an authoritative dunk on the way to an 86-68 win that was not as comfortable as the final score indicated, but a win nonetheless.
“I’m glad it happened that way,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “Through four games we hadn’t been behind in the second half. I wanted to see how we responded.”
The response: The Wolfpack did a much better job of pressuring Presbyterian and denying the Blue Hose shots, forced its 20 turnovers for the fourth straight game and the tide eventually turned for good.
Some of the first-half issues were clearly due to the Wolfpack playing its fourth game in seven days – an NBA schedue, albeit all at home – while still missing Abdul-Malik Abu, taking some of the steam out of the aggressive pressure that had characterized the early days of the Keatts regime.
But an ACC team shouldn’t necessarily need to press to beat Presbyterian, and fatigue can only explain away some of the Wolfpack’s defensive issues, many of which looked all too familiar despite the turnover on the roster and coaching staff. Still, the Wolfpack was able to correct those issues with plenty of time to walk away with the win.
“(Keatts) said we weren’t playing hard, not defending, not doing what got us here,” Lennard Freeman said. “They were shooting 60 percent and we had to take more pride on defense. We came out in the second half and turned the game around.”
As for the wayward outside shooting, missing its first 10 3-point attempts and finishing 1-for-13? That was going to be a problem for N.C. State eventually, and it’s going to be a problem from here on out. The Wolfpack shot 17 percent from 3-point range against Bryant and somehow got worse two days later.
At least in these first four games, even without Abu, the Wolfpack hasn’t had any trouble finding other ways to score. Freeman set another career-high with 23 points and could have had 25 if he had dunked the ball in the final seconds instead of walking away from the basket at Keatts’ direction. Torin Dorn had 18, all from close range.
So it’s on to the Bahamas, where Arizona awaits. At least the Wolfpack will be rested for that one.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock