State 88, Duke 66: Postgame Observations
The NC State basketball team didn't just beat Duke at PNC Arena on Wednesday. The Wolfpack completely dominated the nation's sixth-ranked team, thrusting itself back into the NCAA tournament conversation with emphasis behind career-high scoring performances from Markell Johnson and Devon Daniels.
It was an 88-66 victory that was stunning only because of the ease with which coach Kevin Keatts' team manhandled the Blue Devils. The win itself and the celebratory court rush that followed are actually become quite routine.
That's because State (17-9, 8-7 ACC) has now beaten a top-10 ranked Duke six of the last eight times coach Mike Krzyzewski has brought his team to play at PNC -- including both times in which Keatts has been on the other bench.
So how did the Wolfpack do it, especially coming off a loss at Boston College four days earlier?
Here's a look at some of the factors:
◼ Urgency: C.J. Bryce and Devon Daniels were both asked during a media availability earlier in the week if they thought their team was playing with the right amount of urgency considering their fading NCAA tournament chances.
Both said yes, even though it didn't always appear that way against Boston College.
The were never any question about the Wolfpack's urgency in this one. The Wolfpack asserted itself right from the jump, attacking the basket instead of settling for three-pointers, defending and hitting the glass as aggressively as it has all season.
Daniels, in particular, had a different look to him. He put State on his shoulders early by taking his man to the basket every chance he could -- even when Duke put its best defender, Tre Jones on him. He scored 14 of his team's first 20 points on his way to a career-high 25.
But his contribution went farther than just the numbers on the score sheet. At one point, exchanged words with the Blue Devils' Javin Delaurier after battling for a rebound. It was a clear statement that the Wolfpack wasn't going to be intimidated. Or back down. And it seemed to rub off on the rest of his teammates.
◼ The Markell factor: Johnson has been hot and cold all season and he was never as cold as he was on Sunday, when he was limited to only 17 minutes because of lackasical play and foul trouble.
He made amends and then some on Wednesday.
The senior point guard served notice that the "good" Markell was in the building by knifing into the lane and scoring off the glass to give State an early 6-1 lead. He then hit a pair of three-pointers late in the half to open up a double-digit lead for the first time.
The surest sign that Johnson was on, however, came in the final three seconds before halftime when he took an inbounds pass from under his own basket and took two dribbles before launching a halfcourt heave that banked in at the buzzer.
It was the third halfcourt shot he's made this season. As was the case in the other two games -- against Wisconsin and at UNC Greensboro -- the Wolfpack in a game that is currently classified as Quadrant 1 by the NCAA tournament committee.
As good as Johnson was in the first half, he was even better in the second. He finished with 28 points, a new career high, to go along with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals with only one turnover in 35 1/2 minutes.
◼ Chairmen of the Boards: Rebounding has been an issue for State this season. It came into Wednesday's game ranked 10th in the ACC in conference games with a minus-2.71 margin. Duke, on the other hand, was fifth at plus-2.57.
Keeping opponents away from the offensive glass has been a particular problem of late for the Wolfpack.
It started out looking like more of the same after the Blue Devils scored 10 of their first 25 points on second chance opportunities. But they only scored two more the rest of the way. Overall, State outrebounded Duke by a 51-43 margin with no fewer than four players picking up at least nine rebounds -- Bryce with 10, Johnson, Daniels and D.J. Funderburk with nine each.
Although the Blue Devils got 27 points on 6 of 10 shooting to go along with seven rebounds from star big man Vernon Carey, Funderburk did a good job of offsetting his contribution with 17 points, nine boards and three steals of his own.
Thirteen of the points and six of the rebounds came in the second half, when Funderburk was called on to handle most of the inside load after Manny Bates got into foul trouble and fouled out with more than 11 minutes still remaining.
◼ Strong to the finish: The sellout crowd was already sensing that it might be witnessing something special when State went up by 23 at 57-34 on a three-pointer by Funderburk with 15:48 left.
But if there's anything we've learned about this team, it's that no lead is safe when it's the Wolfpack trying to hold onto it.
It was only a matter of time before Duke (22-4, 12-3) made a run and it happened coming out of the TV timeout following Funderburk's trey. State went over 3 1/2 minutes without scoring, missing seven straight shots while the Blue Devils ran off 13 of the next 15 points to cut the lead back to 12.
Duke eventually got as close as 11 at 61-50 and had several chances to get within single digits. But Johnson finally stopped the bleeding with a huge three-pointer from the top of the circle that seemed to renergize his team.
Instead of wilting under pressure and trying to hang on for dear life, State went on the attack again, running off an 11-2 spurt of its own to regain control. It maintained control by making 10 of its 11 free throws in the second half -- all but one of which came from Daniels, Johnson and Funderburk.
The Wolfpack eventually extended its lead to 27 points before Keatts sent in walkons Chase Graham and Max Farthing to finish things up and enjoy what is rapidly becoming a traditional post-Duke court rush.
So what does all this mean for State's NCAA tournament chances?
It's still way too soon to know for sure, especially since you just never know what you're going to get from this Wolfpack team. Is what happened Wednesday the new norm? Or will it fall back into old habits when it travels to Chapel Hill for a rematch with North Carolina next week?
There are still five more games remaining, including two more against Quad 1 opponents that can enhance the Wolfpack's resume and three against lesser foes that can hurt it.
About the only thing that's certain at this point is that Keatts' team is back in the conversation with a legitimate shot of playing its way in. And that's a lot better position than it was when the game started.