N.C. State walked into a building Saturday where it lost by 51 points a year ago.
The Wolfpack had just one day of on-court preparation for this game, having arrived home in the early hours Thursday morning after a thrilling but exhausting 72-68 win at Pittsburgh late Wednesday night.
The deck stacked against it, N.C. State came out on top, 95-91 in overtime at North Carolina anyway, showing once again how different this Wolfpack team is than last year or the year before.
“Coach’s slogan has been the new era,” N.C. State sophomore center Omer Yurtseven said. “It just shows it and it exactly represents what it says.”
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In his first season as the Wolfpack’s coach, Kevin Keatts has already led the Wolfpack (15-7, 5-4 ACC) to more ACC wins than last season and equaled the team’s overall win total from N.C. State’s forgettable 15-17, 4-14 season in 2016-17.
Since Roy Williams became North Carolina’s coach for the 2003-04 season, the Wolfpack had only won once in the Smith Center before Saturday.
Keatts matched that too.
New era, indeed.
It’s an era where the Wolfpack display toughness on a regular basis. N.C. State has proven to be the better team in late-game situations. Resilient is a popular and accurate word for this N.C. State team.
“Typically my teams get a little stronger at the end,” Keatts said. “Reason being that my guys are in a little better shape than everybody else. Not saying that they weren’t in shape. I just think our conditioning tends to kick in at the end of the game.”
UNC built two six-point leads over the first 10 minutes of the second half.
N.C. State tied the game at 61 with 9:55 to play on an Allerik Freeman free throw.
With 6:32 to play, a Luke Maye free throw gave UNC a 71-65 lead.
Three-point shots by Braxton Beverly and Freeman tied it at 71 with 4:57 remaining.
UNC led 77-73 with 3:12 to play in regulation. But when Torin Dorn hit a 3-pointer with 1:32 to play, the game was tied at 79.
The Pack bounced back every single time.
“As a team, we just held on to it,” Yurtseven said. “It was such a tough battle but I’m proud of my coaches and teammates to push it through.”
Keatts used five players down the stretch and throughout overtime: Beverly, Dorn, Yurtseven, Markell Johnson and Allerik Freeman.
All but Al Freeman were starters. But Keatts believes in going with the hot hand late and Freeman, who scored 29 points by hitting all seven of his 3-point attempts, certainly earned his playing time.
“We weren’t surprised,” Freeman said. “I think that’s why we never let them go. We expected to be in this game. We expected to pull out the win.”
The Wolfpack played strong and together despite expedited game prep caused by a hectic schedule.
The team didn’t arrive home from Pittsburgh until around 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, so Keatts decided not to practice that day.
“On Thursday, we just watched film. We didn’t even take the floor because I thought it wouldn’t help us,” Keatts said.
When the Wolfpack did hit the practice floor for about 90 minutes on Friday, the Pack’s first-year coach liked what he saw.
“I thought our guys looked confident coming off that Pitt win,” Keatts said. “Best thing that happened to us is we played great in the second half at Pitt, especially the last six minutes of the game.”
Last-place Pittsburgh led N.C. State by as many as 11 points in the second half. The Wolfpack closed the game on a 15-2 run to escape with the win.
That rally continued into Saturday’s game at Chapel Hill and the Wolfpack gained another signature win to add to its victories over Arizona, Duke and Clemson.
At the midway point of the ACC regular season, N.C. State is putting together a nice NCAA Tournament resume.
Having missed the tournament the last two seasons, that’s another example of the new era Keatts has ushered in.