To N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, losing is a disease.
When his Wolfpack dropped back-to-back games to Northern Iowa and Tennessee last Thursday and Friday, he instructed his team to treat those games as if they were ill.
His point? Those weren’t the team’s best effort. They were less than 100 percent.
Practice offers time for recovery, and Wednesday night his N.C. State team got well again.
After falling behind 11-0 to Penn State (a relapse, perhaps?), the Wolfpack stopped the Nittany Lions with its defense over the final minutes of the first half, forged ahead with sharp 3-point shooting and held on in the second half to win, 85-78.
“We didn’t want to go on a three-game losing streak,” Keatts said. “I’m a guy who believes in streaks. I thought the guys responded.”
The Wolfpack (6-2) certainly did and won under difficult circumstances. Just before game time, N.C. State announced that senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu is sidelined again with right knee issues. He’d already missed the season’s first four games and is now again unavailable.
Also, 6-7 reserve forward Darius Hicks is done for the season after suffering a torn ACL in practice this week.
So the Wolfpack played with a short bench. Keatts only used three reserves against Penn State.
It didn’t matter. This team was tired of its losing streak and did something about it.
It took Penn State scoring the game’s first 11 points, but that turned out to be a good thing for the Wolfpack.
“It got us mad,” N.C. State sophomore center Omer Yurtseven said. “To be honest, everybody just got mad and, like, we basically started dogging them. We just sat down in front of them and said ‘We accept the challenge.’ We just got back.”
Here are three observations from N.C. State’s first win the ACC/Big Ten Challenge since 2014:
N.C. State can shoot its way back into a game
Ok the statistics show N.C. State entered Wednesday night’s game having made just 27.5 percent of its 3-point shots over the first seven games. That chilly percentage left the Wolfpack 327th among Division I teams nationally from behind the arc.
Keatts, though, refuses to believe his team will always shoot that poorly. The Wolfpack making 10 of 16 3-pointers (62.5 percent) against Penn State supported his belief.
“We’re a much better shooting team than you see overall,” Keatts said. “What you saw tonight is what I see every day in practice. We’re a good shooting team. We’ve had some games where we didn’t make shots. Some of that maybe because I don’t have a lot of depth to sub some guys. But I still want our guys to take shots.”
Sam Hunt’s shooting brought the Wolfpack back from the early deficit. He made all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half and finished with four in the game to score 14 points.
Omer Yurtseven made all three of his 3-pointers while scoring a team-best 19 points. Lavar Batts was also perfect from behind the arc, making both of his attempts.
Last week, N.C. State made just 8 of 30 (26.7 percent) 3-pointers in a 64-60 loss to Northern Iowa and 3 of 16 (18 percent) in losing 67-58 to Tennessee.
Wednesday night was the kind of shooting the Wolfpack will need when it gets into ACC play.
“Anywhere around 20 3-point attempts per game is good for us,” Keatts said. “Against Northern Iowa, we shot 30 and when you get to 30 that’s way too many.”
What to do with Yurtseven?
The 7-foot sophomore center continued his strong start to the season with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Penn State. That’s his second double-double in the last three games.
With Abu sidelined again, Yurtseven and senior Lennard Freeman are the Wolfpack’s lone healthy big men. They’ll be on the court together more and more, Keatts said. But don’t be surprised if you keep seeing Yurtseven coming off the bench despite his production.
“Omer has played like a starter, but I don’t want to lose that firepower for him coming off the bench,” Keatts said. “Not saying that he won’t start, but he’s been great coming off the bench.”
Beating Penn State allowed the Wolfpack to flush those two losses in the Bahamas and head into December on a positive vibe.
The wins figure to come easier between now and ACC play. N.C. State’s next five games, all at home during the next three weeks, are against S.C. State, Missouri-Kansas City, UNC Greensboro, Robert Morris and Jacksonville. All play in leagues that will only get one team, their tournament champion, in the NCAA tournament.
If things go as expected, N.C. State should carry an 11-2 record into its ACC opener at Clemson on Dec. 30.
Beating a Big Ten team should have the Wolfpack in the right mindset to learn while winning against teams from the lower end of Division I.
N.C. State once again showed tenacity on Wednesday night to battle back from an early deficit and win. That could become this team’s identity and that would be something to savor when ACC play arrives.