N.C. State had beaten Pittsburgh 79-76 on Saturday, showing some toughness, making clutch shots and defensive stops to end a three-game ACC losing streak.
While much was made of the Pack’s 14 3-pointers in the game, of how Braxton Beverly, C.J. Bryce and Markell Johnson combined for 12, the players had as much fun after the game discussing another shooting performance.
That one came Friday, with Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts doing a lot of the shooting. And, according to the players, a lot of the talking.
“I mean, he feels like he can outshoot everybody on the team,” junior C.J. Bryce said. “He made some shots here and there but he’s not really a shooter. He’ll talk trash to you but he’s no shooter. But he is a competitor.”
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Seems Keatts, after the team arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday, didn’t want the players sitting around the hotel. They headed over to Pitt’s Petersen Events Center for a 90-minute shootaround that, yes, at times had Keatts shooting around, showing off his J.
“I was the best shooter on the floor and contributed to us making the 14 3’s, because I outshot those guys and their pride wasn’t going to let them be outshot by the coach,” Keatts said after the game.
Granted, that was tongue in cheek. Keatts was holding back a smile.
Beverly wouldn’t quite say Keatts lied, deciding the coach might have “extended the truth” a little. He also made it clear Keatts didn’t beat him in any of the shooting contests.
“It helped out,” Beverly said. “We know what kind of team we are. We had to make sure we didn’t get uptight and get out of character. We know when we’re loose and having fun, we’re playing at our best.”
The game Saturday wasn’t always fun. The Pack had a 14-point lead in the second half but the Panthers, despite losing six straight ACC games, wouldn’t let the Wolfpack run away with it.
Senior Jared Wilson-Frame, quiet much of the game, began nailing 3-pointers. Freshman guard Xavier Johnson, so quick and dangerous with the ball, looked to drive. Even big man Terrell Brown stepped out and knocked down a 3.
The arena was loud, especially the “Oakland Zoo,” as the Pitt students call their cheering sections. They were on their feet all game, making noise.
Could the Pack handle it? N.C. State couldn’t score against Virginia Tech and couldn’t keep North Carolina from scoring in its last two games -- a 47-24 loss to the Hokies, followed by the 113-96 loss to UNC. What would happen in the heat at Pitt?
This day, the Pack had answers and didn’t create more problems for itself. After a 3 by Wilson-Frame gave Pitt a 61-59 lead, the Pack’s Torin Dorn responded with a 3-pointer from the corner. Bryce hit a 3 and later Beverly a 3 against the Pitt zone.
“They were a team shooting 30 percent from 3 in the conference play,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “They made a lot of them today. Some were contested (and) some of them we didn’t get to guys. I thought at times we got a little bit tired in our zone.”
Finally, winning time. Score tied 72-72 and less than four minutes left in regulation.
The Pack’s Markell Johnson loaded up a 3-pointer from the top of the key and nailed it. N.C. State had a lead it would not give up as the Panthers went the final 3:53 without a field goal, missing their last seven shots.
“They made some tough shots,” Capel said. “That Johnson 3 at the top, I thought we played good defense.”
In the end it came down to Pitt missing shots and then fouling, and Bryce making free throws to seal it. He made two with 9.9 seconds remaining for a 78-75 lead, then one of two with 5.5 seconds left for the final 79-76 score.
Relieved to win, the Pack (17-7, 5-6 ACC) could relax and reflect. Keatts liked having 17 assists on 26 made baskets, and 20 offensive rebounds. Markell Johnson, he said, played his best overall game since his hard fall to the floor against Pitt on Jan. 12 at PNC Arena, an injury that forced him to miss some games.
Finally, 14 of 27 from the 3-point line? That’ll do. That’ll will win most games.
And that led to more talk of a memorable shootaround and the lift it might have provided.
“Give our guys credit. Guys shot with confidence,” Keatts said.
That was no lie.