Against All Odds, Wolfpack Find a Way
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Kevin Keatts has a tradition of taking his NC State basketball team to get ice cream before heading to the airport after every road victory.
On Monday, the Wolfpack coach promised them each a triple scoop after their improbable 53-51 win against defending national champion Virginia.
And they earned every creamy bite of it.
Already two men down because of injuries to freshman center Manny Bates and graduate forward Pat Andree and playing its second game in 48 hours, State's mountain of adversity got even larger when budding star D.J. Funderburk fouled out with 6:48 remaining.
But not even a 10-minute scoring drought and a four-point deficit down the stretch could keep the Wolfpack from its first win in nine tries at John Paul Jones Arena.
Markell Johnson, as he did so many times last season, put his team ahead with a clutch stepback 3-pointer from the top of the circle with 2:44 left before C.J. Bryce hit a dagger of a jumper in the lane as the shot clock expired in the game's final minute.
Even then, the Wolfpack had to survive a nervous few minutes and a potential game-winning shot by the Cavaliers' Casey Morsell before finally claiming a win that—as a Quadrant 1 game on the road—will greatly enhance its NCAA tournament resume come Selection Sunday.
"Coach just kept telling us to keep playing hard and finish out the game like we'd played the whole game," said sophomore forward Jericole Hellems, who also had a big basket down the stretch after grabbing an offensive rebound. "Just trust in our teammates and next man up."
There weren't many teammates left once Funderburk went to the bench following a strange set of circumstances that saw him pick up a technical on a double foul with UVA's Francisco Caffaro and his fifth personal within what seemed like a decisive 25-second stretch.
The Wolfpack (14-5, 5-3 ACC) was still up by three at the time. But with Bates back at home in concussion protocol, Andree in a walking boot and its best player over the past month—who led the way Monday with 14 points and five rebounds—the situation looked bleak at best.
Things got even worse once UVa (12-6, 4-4) put the wraps on an 13-0 run that saw State go 10:14 without scoring against No. 1-ranked team nationally in both scoring and field goal percentage defense.
But doing just as Keatts told them, the last six men standing in red—Bryce, Johnson, Hellems, Devon Daniels, Braxton Beverly and seldom-used Danny Dixon—kept on fighting and somehow managed to get the job done.
"At that point, I didn't know how long we hadn't scored," Keatts said afterward. "But what we talked about was, look, if we can't score, then you've got to make sure they can't score. Don't let them get away from you."
After Caffaro made two free throws and a basket to put the Cavaliers ahead 46-42 with 4:37 to go, State didn't allow another field goal. UVA shot just 29.2% in the second half, making only 7 of its 24 shots from the floor.
The Wolfpack didn't exactly light it up either once Hellems finally ended the long dry spell with a 3-pointer that got his team back to within one.
But it did just enough to win.
After Bryce made his big shot, pump-faking Kody Strattmann off the floor and calmly sinking a tough 15-footer to seemingly put the game away at 52-47 with 26 seconds left, State did everything in its power to give the game away.
First Johnson and Bryce both missed the front end of one-and-ones. Then, after UVA climbed back to within one on four free throws by Kihei Clark—the second pair after being intentionally fouled with 8.2 seconds remaining—Daniels missed the second of two from the line to leave the door open.
And yet, the Cavaliers still didn't accept the gift. After rebounding Daniels' miss, Morsell rushed the ball down court and with Hellems and Daniels closing in on him, hit the front iron with a potential game-winning three at the buzzer.
"Already we came into the game shorthanded and with D.J. Funderburk playing at such a high level going to the bench so early, it was a problem for us," said Bryce, the only other State player to score in double figures with 13 points.
"I feel like we did a really good job of keeping our composure. They had a chance to win with that shot at the end, but gratefully he missed it and everybody gets some ice cream."