Keatts: 'We Stepped Up to the Challenge'

Brett Friedlander

The NC State basketball team needed a big effort against Duke on Wednesday to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive and it got that -- and then some -- drubbing the sixth-ranked Blue Devils 88-66 at PNC Arena.

It was the Wolfpack's third straight home win against Duke and its sixth in the Blue Devils' last eight trips to PNC.

The 22-point win was State's most lopsided against a top-10 opponent since 1965, it also beat Saint Joseph's by 22. Duke's loss, meanwhile, tied its second-largest ever as a top-10 team, surpassed only by a 29-point drubbing by St. Peter's in the 1968 NIT. The other 22-point loss was in 1956, also against State.

Here's what Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts had to say about the meaningful victory:

"We beat a very good Duke team tonight and they're good because they can do everything. They can score inside and out. We had no answer for Vernon Carey and we knew it coming into the game. But we wanted to do a good job of not letting the other guys beat us.from the outside I thought our guys stepped up completely for the challenge.

"We had some guys that played really great defense. And guys played in different segments. I thought Devon Daniels really carried us in the first half, got to the hole. One of our gameplans was we wanted to drive the basketball, not settle for threes, because after the BC game we weren't shooting the three very well. And then I thought Markell (Johnson), D.J. (Funderburk), C.J. (Bryce) ... all of those guys finished strong.

"It's a very good win for us. It's a win that we needed, because obviously we just lost one on the road. So I'm excited for our guys. We talked about the last couple days what a great opportunity this will be and we stepped up to the challenge."

Keatts was asked how he can harness the effort his team against the Blue Devils and carry it over into the last five games of the regular season:

"We're a good baskeball team when we we've got everybody healthy and we've talked about it all year long. The only guy we don't have now is Pat (Andree) and obviously when we get him back we'll have another guy who can shoot the basketball. 

"But we just want to build on it. We had won two road games and could have won three road games in a row, so we had some momentum even though we lost the BC game. And I thought our guys accepted coming home and did a great job.

"Our fans were tremendous tonight. Our students were great, our fans came out for us. It was a great game for us, a tremendous atmosphere and we won a great game.

Keatts was asked about Markell Johnson's career night, in which he scored 28 points, pulled down nine rebounds and handed out four assists, and when he knew State was getting the "good" Markell against Duke:

"Markell Johnson is always good. There is no bad Markell, there's a great and a good, and he was great tonight. Give him credit. The past couple days in practice, he's been the one that's been talking. saying “Come on, let’s play some basketball and compete.

"He has played really well in practice the past couple of days and it carried over into the game tonight. He was a leader. He was a really good point guard. He got everyone involved, scored when we needed him to, played the bulk of the game, and didn’t have many defensive letdowns. So I'm proud of him."

Keatts said he was proud of the way his team responded after Duke narrowed a 23-point deficit down to just 11 with plenty of time remaining:

"They're the No. 6 team in the country and they're really good, and they've won seven in a row, so they weren't just going to lay down. And they fought back. But I thought our guys responded well. We went back to driving the basketball. We had a segment when we went up 23, I thought that we were playing back on our heels and played conservative.

We went back to getting offensive rebounds and attacking the paint, and made some shots. I thought that was the difference in the game. I have to give our guys credit, as respsonded, we responded and we were able to finish the game the right way."

Keatts was asked about leaving Manny Bates in the game with four fouls and if he regretted doing it, since the redshirt freshman big man fouled out with more than 11 minutes still left:

"I figured that we had no answer for Vernon Carey. I figured that if Manny Bates fouls out, then he fouls out. We would still play D.J. Funderburk down low, and we would just put Danny Dixon in there. He was the only guy that could give Carey a little bit of trouble because of his shot blocking ability.

Unfortunately, he ended up fouling out. But we were okay with them giving up the post because I felt like once we had the big lead, they couldn’t beat us just by feeding the ball to Carey. We knew we had to go one on one in the post."

Keatts said he liked the way his team maintained its intensity throughout the entire game:

"I didnt think we settled. If you look back at the Carolina game, I felt like we got a lead and settled. We dribbled too much instead of having ball and player movement. Tonight we knew that we wanted to have more sets, rather than guys just going one-on-one and trying to make plays. We did that at the end in order to run out the clock, but for the majority of the game, we just ran more sets, getting plays off of those."

D.J. Funderburk got 16 of his 20 points and seven of his nine rebounds in the second half. Keatts was asked if he said anything to his junior big man at halftime to get him going:

"There could have been a little yelling at him at the half. I'm not saying that it happened, but it could have been.

"No, he responded. D.J. is just such a competitor. Vernon Carey is good. I know I've said it five times. I know D.J. wanted to play well  and Manny wanted to play well. But I just I think he responded well and made some plays. He was coming into the game 1 of 12 from three, but he stepped up and made a big three. That is the last one he is taking this year, I'll say that."

Keatts was asked for his thoughts on the impact beating Duke might have on State's suddenly improved NCAA tournament chances and whether he talks about such things with his players:

"What we talked about is getting better. It just happened that we were playing a team that was number six in the country so we had two opportunities. One of those was obviously to get well because we just lost but the second opportunity was to beat a team that’s higher ranked than us in the conference but also a team that’s really good.

"I don’t really talk about that with those guys, we just talk about the next game because I’m not sure they can handle that. If I put pressure on them and say we have to win this game for NCAA hopes, I’m not sure we would respond like we did tonight. So we just talked about the two opportunities we have tonight and taking advantage of them."

The big question now is can the Wolfpack carry the level of intensity and execution it showed Wednesday over to the final five games of the regular season and beyond -- starting Saturday against Florida State. But Keatts wasn't ready to think about that yet.

As time expired on the big win, Wolfpack fans at PNC Arena stormed the court in celebration. Keatts was asked how he might celebrate and if the ice cream usually reserved for road victories might be in order after a game like this:

"We are just happy. There’s no ice cream for a home win but we’re excited. We move to eight wins in the conference and we move on to get a chance to play in the NCAA. We celebrated in the locker room, we were happy and jumped up and down like we always do with every win. Not because it’s a Duke game. So we just move on."