A regular season so full of joy for N.C. State basketball saw the team deal with a kick to the teeth on Thursday night in Atlanta.
By Saturday night, following that 78-75 loss to lowly Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the Wolfpack returned to happy times and showed the toughness that has it ready for postseason play.
Before N.C. State took the lead over Louisville for good in the regular-season finale, the game was tied seven times. The 14th and final lead change came when senior Abdul-Malik Abu hit a free throw during a 13-0 N.C. State run that propelled it past the Cardinals, 76-69.
The Georgia Tech loss ultimately cost N.C. State a top-four finish in the ACC standings. It didn’t ruin the team’s chances to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, though.
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Instead, that setback steeled the Wolfpack’s resolve to play sharp in its final games prior to the NCAA tournament.
No, the loss at Georgia Tech wasn’t the beginning of an N.C. State collapse. It offered just another chance to show this Wolfpack basketball team is tougher than others that wore N.C. State red in recent years.
“What do you guys call it, that N.C. State stuff?” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said Saturday night. “What is that? I don’t know what that is. Right now we’ve been able to stuff the stuff. I would love to not hear the N.C. State stuff any more after this regular season.”
The Wolfpack (21-10, 11-7 ACC) had just one day of preparation between the loss at Georgia Tech and the win over Louisville. There simply wasn’t time to go over all of the Cardinals’ plays to find a way to play strong defense.
But after allowing Georgia Tech to make 62.5 percent of its shots in the second half, the Wolfpack had to play better defense. Hard work and togetherness was the only way.
“In one-day preps,” Keatts said, “you have to rely on how hard you play as opposed to what the team is running because you don’t really have a chance to go over everything they may run. So I had to rely on some of our older guys to pick up some things by watching film. I thought we did a good job. We cleaned up a lot of mistakes that we made on Thursday.”
While Louisville made 50 percent of its shots in the first half, the Wolfpack recorded nine steals that led to 11 Cardinals turnovers.
In the second half, Louisville made just 14 of 34 shots (41.2 percent). The Cardinals suffered through five minutes and 56 seconds of scoreless basketball, allowing the Wolfpack to score 13 points in a row to take the lead for good.
“It was a big emphasis,” N.C. State guard Braxton Beverly said. “We felt like we didn’t compete on the defensive end like we really should have, like we really could have, in Atlanta. That was one big thing we talked about. That’s how we’ve been successful all year. We defend. Our offense will come off our defense.”
Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State’s 7-foot center, scored 13 points but missed two wide-open chances at the rim, including a dunk attempt. He made up for it on defense, with five blocked shots and three steals.
That’s the kind of night it was for N.C. State, which had to slog through the game relying on its defense until it saw enough of its own shots to fall to take the lead.
“We wanted to concentrate on the defensive end and getting stops,” N.C. State junior Torin Dorn said. “Our shots weren’t really falling early in the game. So us getting stops was what was able to keep us in the game and eventually help us win the game.”
That’s a good trait to have entering the postseason, first the ACC tournament followed almost assuredly now by the NCAA tournament.
Confidence that good things will happen is another good trait.
As Keatts so emphatically said, this team believes good things will come its way. It’s also shown the work ethic to achieve them.