Luke DeCock

In Tuesday’s aftermath, Wolfpack bounces back while Tar Heels bottom out

NC State’s Keatts talks about win over Pitt and the play of Eric Lockett

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.

Tuesday night might as well have been Mardi Gras the way everyone was still hungover four days later. While North Carolina blew a tire against Louisville in Chapel Hill in its worst home loss since Matt Doherty was in charge, N.C. State had to dig deep to squeak past Pittsburgh, a team the Tar Heels beat by 25 on the road just a week ago.

Rivalry games like UNC-N.C. State and Duke-Carolina made the ACC what it is today, but they can sometimes take a toll. The effort and emotion expended in total pursuit of victory left both the Tar Heels and Wolfpack struggling at times Saturday in games that should have offered a soft landing, at home against teams likely to finish in the second division of the ACC.

Down five midway through the second half and suffering through an 0-for-13 shooting drought, N.C. State relied on the unexpected contributions of Eric Lockett and equally unexpected foul-free play from D.J. Funderburk to rally for an 86-80 win Saturday that was neither easy nor pretty but was no less vital.

“It’s big for us,” N.C. State forward Torin Dorn said. “Any win you can get in the ACC home or away is big. It’s a marathon.”

It’s also a merry-go-round: In the past five days, barely a blink of the eye in the scope of the season, Pittsburgh beat Louisville, Louisville beat North Carolina, North Carolina beat N.C. State and N.C. State beat Pittsburgh. And North Carolina won at Pittsburgh a week ago to further balance the scales, the transitive property gone mad.

The fact of the North Carolina loss, if not the 21-point scale, was not entirely out of character for the inscrutable Tar Heels, equal parts mercurial and mysterious, while Louisville already has a win over Michigan State to its credit, albeit at home.

“I’m at a little bit of a loss,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, and he’s not the only one.

So that was perhaps easier to fathom than N.C. State dragging Lockett out of the where-are-they-now file to save the team on a day it lost Wyatt Walker to ejection and Markell Johnson to a hard landing on his tailbone in the first half, although Johnson would return to the bench if not the game and appeared to escape serious injury.

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts and trainer Drew Moore check on Markell Johnson (11) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Pittsburgh at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Lockett, who didn’t play against either North Carolina or Auburn – his playing time in the intervening three games was proportional to the degree of competition – hit back-to-back 3-pointers during a crucial stretch of the second half, the second very much of the heat-check variety. He had a chance to fire a third, but made the extra pass to Dorn in the corner for a 3-pointer that put N.C. State up five and forced a Pittsburgh timeout.

The Wolfpack didn’t need him against Auburn, but Lockett played Saturday like he was trying to prove he could have helped Tuesday night.

“It just wasn’t my time,” said Lockett, a graduate transfer from Florida International. “Coach knows what he’s doing. He’s done it before. I just need to trust the project.”

NC State's Eric Lockett talks about the Wolfpack's victory over Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.

That was the key stretch in a scrappy game and N.C. State needed all of it against Pittsburgh, since Jeff Capel has put the Big East back into the Panthers. What they lack in skill they make up in hustle and grit, and tempers flared more than once. Walker was ejected for grabbing Xavier Johnson’s ankle after a tangle on the baseline and there were a few other trips to the monitor for further examination in a foul-filled game.

Given how catastrophic losing to Pittsburgh would have been, finding a way to win was an utter necessity for the Wolfpack, which successfully bounced back from Tuesday’s disappointment while running out of bodies. Whatever emotional toll Tuesday’s loss took on them, they handled it better than the Tar Heels handled prosperity.

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.