Luke DeCock

For NC State, an ugly win that should look pretty when it matters

NC State’s Kevin Keatts talks about the victory over Syracuse

'It's a great win' says NC State coach Kevin Keatts about the Wolfpack's victory over the Syracuse Orange at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.
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'It's a great win' says NC State coach Kevin Keatts about the Wolfpack's victory over the Syracuse Orange at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

Nobody does winning ugly better than Syracuse, which meant N.C. State outdid the Orange at what the Orange does best Wednesday night. It wasn’t pretty for the Wolfpack. But it was as decisive as it was vital.

Wednesday was N.C. State’s last chance at home for a much-needed resume win, and while one game does not a bubble make, the alternative for the Wolfpack was dire. Equally important, N.C. State let a double-digit lead fritter away to a possession at the break, only to reassert its authority to open the second half and run the lead to as many as 21 late in a 73-58 win.

No one in the N.C. State locker room would ever admit to following the ups and downs of bracketology like the weather, but it would only take the most casual and passing familiarity with that landscape to understand the importance of this particular game.

“We definitely hear the rumors,” C.J. Bryce said. “But these last games, we just want to finish strong with everything we have, not just to get into the NCAA tournament.”

The rest of the home schedule is pretty blah: Boston College, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech. N.C. State still has two chances for a big road win, at Duke on Saturday and Florida State later, but generally speaking, the hard part is over. That’s good news from a win-loss perspective and less-good news from a resume perspective, making this was the last home game where a win would really help the Wolfpack’s cause, a must-win for tournament reasons and mental-health reasons.

N.C. State handled the Syracuse zone well despite 20 turnovers, with Torin Dorn scoring 16 points from the pivot in middle, and were it not for that stumble at the end of the first half it wouldn’t have been close. Kevin Keatts was particularly proud of the Wolfpack’s defense, with Tyus Battle and Elijah Hughes both held to single digits.

It was hard to believe this was the same Syracuse team that couldn’t miss at Duke, throwing in circus shots from every corner of the court, guarded and otherwise. In contrast, the Orange were a jump-shooting mess Wednesday, the ugliest offensive performance on this floor in … 11 days.

The only thing this game had in common with that Duke game was poor Marek Dolezaj getting flattened – then, taking a charge from Zion Williams; now, D.J. Funderburk blocking his shot and then landing on top of him.

And yes, this was the kind of unspeakable ugliness that Syracuse can generate late in the season – in the ACC tournament, especially – only to somehow fall backward into the Sweet 16 or even (in 2016) the Final Four. But not this time. Not this team. Right? Right?

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts is happy with the play of his team during the second half of N.C. State’s 73-58 victory over Syracuse at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Syracuse at least is in decent position to make the tournament, where it can commence mucking and grinding; N.C. State still has work to do. Probably too much work, if the Wolfpack hadn’t won Wednesday. Then again, with Duke looming Saturday – Bryce watched the whole unlikely sequence against Louisville on Tuesday night, knowing the Wolfpack would face either an angry Blue Devils team off a brutal loss or one buoyed by an improbable comeback – it’s hard to think too far ahead.

“Two games ago, we were right in the middle of the ACC,” D.J. Funderburk said. “We were a game away from being down and a game away from being up in the bracket. I don’t really look at that until selection Sunday, when we’re watching it on TV.”

With the exception of Wake Forest, N.C. State hasn’t lost to anyone who won’t be in the NCAA tournament – “I hate to say this, Keatts said, “but we’ve got great losses” – but going into Wednesday the Wolfpack still needed good wins and was running out of opportunities to get them. Beating Syracuse definitely counts, pretty or not.

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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.