Luke DeCock

Wolfpack’s win over Duke its second second-ranked upset

N.C. State's Keats explains 96-85 upset win over Duke, unselfish play and teamwork cited

After big loss to Notre Dame the Wolfpack knocks off number two ranked Duke in front of a packed house.
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After big loss to Notre Dame the Wolfpack knocks off number two ranked Duke in front of a packed house.

The funny thing is, this wasn't at all novel for Abdul-Malik Abu. A court-storming at PNC Arena? Nothing new about that. Abu was swarmed by the elated masses as a freshman in 2015. He's been here before, even if this might have been the least likely of his three wins against Duke. Barring a meeting in the ACC tournament, he'll finish his N.C. State career .500 against the Blue Devils.

“I got more wins than a lot of people,” Abu said. “That's always going to hold dear to me, being at N.C. State and knowing the rivalry and being close to these competitors we have. It's special, but we're not done. This wasn't a championship.”

Abu’s 3-3 record is as much a statistical oddity as the Wolfpack's record this season: 2-0 against teams ranked No. 2 in the country, 9-5 against everyone else. N.C. State lost to UNC-Greensboro on this same floor. Go figure.

What a terrific, unexpected, tumultuous and, for the home fans, joyous night this was; like the Arizona win, a beacon of hope in what figures to be an otherwise long season and, for the first two dismal games of ACC play, certainly was. The 96-85 win over Duke showed what N.C. State can do when it shares the ball, hustles, plays defense and makes shots. That's not going to happen every night, but when it does – as it did against the Wildcats in the Bahamas – it can be a beautiful thing.

“(N.C. State) really played with an incredible verve,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, a rare and potentially unprecedented use of the v-word to describe an opponent. It was true, though. The Wolfpack was down 11 at one point and never lost faith. Al Freeman had as many assists (five) as missed 2-point shots and Torin Dorn, a 27 percent 3-point shooter, made two in the closing minutes despite being fouled on one of them.

Watch as NC State fans storm the court after the Wolfpack upset the Duke Blue Devils at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

Combined with North Carolina's disheartening but not-at-all surprising loss at Virginia earlier Saturday, and all four in-state ACC teams are 1-2 in conference play. The last time that happened, in 2014, none of them made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 35 years.

The Triangle has sent a team to the Final Four in each season since then, and the good news for Duke is that in each of its last two national-title seasons, it lost to N.C. State in Raleigh. So there's that.

The bad news is that the Blue Devils can't shoot from the outside, can't get a stop when they need one and have no bench, at least no bench Krzyzewski is willing to rely upon. Marvin Bagley III remains insanely good – Omer Yurtseven in particular played commendable defense to limit Bagley to a mere 31 points – but Grayson Allen was a non-factor, with eight points on only nine shots, and a team that starts four freshman isn't really equipped to overcome its only senior struggling like that.

“Grayson didn't play well,” Krzyzewski said. “Bottom line. He's played real well, but in our two losses on the road, our two losses, he didn't play well. We need him to play well all the time, or be strong all the time. I'm not blaming it on him. I'm just saying, when it's not there, you know it's not there and it just hurts you in every way.”

NC State's Malik Abu on the Wolfpack's win over Duke.

The Blue Devils remain a uniquely talented group, more like an NBA team than a college team in some ways, capable of feats of athleticism and basketball skill that occasionally defy description. It's also a team with visible and potentially fatal flaws, all of which were on display Saturday.

Krzyzewski's complaints about Duke's youth and pace of improvement on defense rang a little hollow, since that's inevitably a consequence of recruiting one-and-done players, and Duke's lack of depth is almost always a coaching decision at its heart as opposed to a crippling shortage of available top-100 recruits. It kind of comes with the territory Duke has staked out over the past few years.

But there was nothing about Krzyzewski’s praise for N.C. State that was anything less than accurate (or genuine). The Wolfpack played to the limit of its potential and the Blue Devils were an order of magnitude below their limit and from such divergences come such upsets.

“When we want to go out there and want to focus and execute and do what we're supposed to do, the sky's the limit,” Abu said.

The Wolfpack fans flooded the floor with red, again, and in this particular case at the end of a game that showed what N.C. State can be at its best and what Duke can be when it isn't.

Up by seven with 1:04 left in the game, NC State's Torin Dorn makes a three-pointer as he is being fouled by Duke's Javin DeLaurier. Dorn made the free throw, putting the Wolfpack up by 11, effectively putting the game away.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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