Luke DeCock

NC State passes its biggest test yet, a top-25 caliber win for an imminently top-25 team

NC State’s Keatts on victory over No. 7 Auburn: ‘It was a great program win’

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Auburn Tigers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Auburn Tigers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

No one even twitched toward the court, which remained pristinely unstormed. There was something almost routine as N.C. State closed out yet another win over a top-10 team, an upset in the mind of poll voters if not the smarter folk in Las Vegas.

This was a top-25 win by a top-25 team in a top-25 atmosphere, a special night for a team that’s turning out to be something special. It was hard to tell for a long time just how good N.C. State actually is. It is not now.

The Wolfpack came into the game unranked. After Wednesday’s 78-71 win over No. 7 Auburn, that won’t last long. Notice will be taken. Fairly or unfairly, this win validated everything that came before it, legitimized it because of the respect accorded to Auburn. It took beating a team that was unilaterally appreciated for the Wolfpack to be appreciated itself.

“Look, we didn’t accidentally become 10-1,” said N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, now 4-1 against top-10 teams. “Our guys have worked extremely hard to get there.”

The second great nonconference game in the Triangle in the past week was quite different from the first but every bit as revealing for the home team. North Carolina’s win over Gonzaga was a shootout, a showcase for elite offenses. This was a grind, a showcase for elite defenses. N.C. State out-Auburned Auburn, hassling the Tigers into turnover after turnover the way Auburn so often does to everyone else.

That was the plan all along, from the moment Keatts arrived on campus, to build a team that can rely on its defense and effort even when the shots aren’t falling. That was the case in the first half, when N.C. State’s double-digit lead faded to almost nothing, but the Wolfpack’s diligence on the defensive end ensured it could remain in control even when it couldn’t shoot straight.

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the play of Markell Johnson after the Wolfpack's victory over No. 7 Auburn at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

And then it did: Markell Johnson took over in the second half.

Keatts has been trying to develop that kind of mentality, been preaching it for a season and a half, but it’s one thing to talk a good game. It’s another to actually play one.

“At Wisconsin, we should have won that game but we let things slip away from us,” Johnson said. “This game, we finally closed it out well.”

It was far from pretty, what happens when two teams that pride themselves on athletic defense and aren’t always the most consistent shooting offenses get together. The combined 42 turnovers couldn’t all be attributed to defensive intensity; there was some offensive inefficiency on both sides as well. But Braxton Beverly hit some big shots early and Johnson got hot in the second half, and that was enough offense to put away the win.

The entire first act of the season has been leading toward this, through a run of somewhat middling games and the loss at Wisconsin, hard to hold against N.C. State in the scheme of things. The two neutral-site games against mid-level Power 5 teams, Vanderbilt and Penn State, gave a sense of N.C. State’s potential but this was always going to be the true crucible: a test of the mentality N.C. State has been building, a test of how the Wolfpack has matured.

N.C. State passed both.

“It definitely shows we have a really good team, that we’re capable of doing really big things this year,” Beverly said. “We kind of feed off the doubt.”

There isn’t going to be much doubt now. There was every reason to reserve judgment on the true strength of this team. There is now every reason to respect it.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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