The juxtaposition is so odd, so unexpected, and yet so revealing. Here we are, in the last week of January, and N.C. State and North Carolina are tied in the ACC standings at 5-4. It feels like a misprint. It is not. It is an entirely accurate representation of where the two teams stand at this midpoint of the conference season, especially after what happened Saturday afternoon.
Separated by 51 points on this floor a year ago, 40 minutes couldn’t separate them Saturday. And Kevin Keatts, already with wins over Sean Miller and Mike Krzyzewski, used “extra innings,” as he called it, to add Roy Williams to that list, 95-91. Keatts has brought more order to his surroundings in 2 ½ months than some N.C. State coaches ever did.
N.C. State has already beaten a likely No. 1 seed and two potential No. 2 seeds and may well join them in the NCAA tournament before all of this is over, assuming that feather-soft nonconference schedule doesn’t keep the Wolfpack out.
There’s no question that N.C. State has been at its best against the best teams it has faced, whether that’s Arizona or Duke or North Carolina, which may bode well for its hopes down the stretch and in the ACC tournament. But when Al Freeman shoots like this – 7-for-7 from 3-point range, earning a lot of credit in the bank for future heat checks – the Wolfpack isn’t going to lose many games.
North Carolina was somehow competitive in this one despite being outscored 45-12 from 3-point range, which spoke to Theo Pinson’s aggressiveness after a no-show performance and Luke Maye’s ability to score in bunches. But all of the Tar Heels’ recurring flaws were on display as well: the poor outside shooting, the lack of an inside presence, missed free throws, the inability to guard the 3-point line.
“We’re not ready to panic,” Williams said. “I’m not ready to panic or abandon the ship or anything like that.”
More worrisome, the Tar Heels botched the easy plays: Johnson missed a wide-open 3-pointer and Pinson missed a pair of three throws early in overtime that let N.C. State take control, and Sterling Manley stole N.C. State’s inbounds pass in the final seconds of overtime, only to fumble it away to Torin Dorn.
Dorn was one of several N.C. State players to play out of his mind, which is what the Wolfpack needed to pull this off on the road. Freeman as well, of course, but Markell Johnson drove for the final field goal of regulation and knocked down a pair of game-sealing free throws in overtime with three seconds to go. That may be the true measure of what Keatts has done: He has gotten just about everyone – other than Abdul-Malik Abu – playing more often than not to the best of his ability, and certainly when it matters most.
While the national college-basketball cognoscenti salivated over the top-five matchup in Durham, and not unjustifiably so – Virginia’s 65-63 win over Duke certainly met expectations as Duke and North Carolina lost at home on the same day for the first time in almost 45 years – the more important local game Saturday was in Chapel Hill. Not nationally, not regionally, not in terms of the ACC, but certainly within these borders.
It was no coincidence that four of the game’s five leading scorers, two from each team, were all from North Carolina: Huntersville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Charlotte. This is the kind of game that brings out their best, and it did.
So N.C. State left Chapel Hill victorious for the second time in its past four visits, a truly shocking statistic given the Wolfpack’s long history of struggle there. The Wolfpack headed back to campus, to the Bell Tower and – after back-to-back road wins – its postgame ice cream for the second time this week. It wouldn’t be as hard to find as it was at midnight in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Keatts knew where he was going.
“We’re going to get back to Raleigh and celebrate with our fans,” Keatts said. “We’ll give some business to the locals.”
Keatts has done plenty of that: He’s given the business to N.C. State’s biggest local rivals, an improbable 2-0 against Duke and North Carolina, ascending the standings, hoping for more.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock