Back At Full Strength, Wolfpack Powers Past Miami
Kevin Keatts was in a good mood Wednesday night.
A very good mood.
At different times during his postgame press conference, he poked fun at team spokesman Craig Hammel over the new sports jacket he was wearing, debated the merits of the "sky hook" budding star D.J. Funderburk executed during the second half and lamented his team's short attention span at practice.
He even talked about the game his NC State team had just played.
Given the way that went, an 80-63 victory against Miami at PNC Arena, the Wolfpack coach had every reason to feel a little giddy.
For the first time since Dec. 29, he had all his scholarship players available to him thanks to the return of leading scorer and rebounder C.J. Bryce from a four-game concussion-related absence.
And for the first time in six games against an ACC opponent, the Wolfpack looked the way Keatts envisioned it would look.
State pressed, defended the 3-point line and got balanced scoring throughout the lineup both at the rim and from the perimeter in by far its best, most complete performance of the season.
"It was good to have a full team, a roster full of guys that can go in the game," Keatts said. "I was glad to get C.J. back, not just because he's our leading scorer, but it's good to have him in the locker room. We needed some senior leadership on and off the court.
"One thing we talked about is being a star in your role. I'm trying to get everybody to accept what their role is and be able to play as aggressive as they can in that role, because we don't have that one guy that can score 20 every night. So many guys played well."
Coming off a disappointing loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday and looking to finally build some momentum now that all his players are back and healthy, Keatts shook up his starting lineup Wednesday by having both the 6-foot-10 Funderburk and the 6-11 on the court at the same time.
It wasn't until the Wolfpack (12-5, 3-3 ACC) switched up and went with a smaller unit, however, that things finally began to click.
State took its first lead at 26-25 on a Braxton Beverly 3-pointer with 3:33 remaining in the first half and took off from there. It finished the half on a 10-0 run, then shot 64.3 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes to take control and pull away.
"When I talked about needing to jell more, this is exactly what I was talking about," Funderburk said. "Everybody was happy for each other. Nobody made any selfish plays. I was just having fun, really. That’s the main key, just having fun. When we got to doing that in the second half, it was kind of deadly for us."
Funderburk continued his ascension into an elite offensive force by leading State with 19 points -- including the aforementioned sky hook in the lane -- while pulling down nine rebounds.
But he had plenty of help.
Devon Daniels scored 15 points, mostly by attacking the rim and posting up on 5-foot-7 Miami point guard Chris Lykes. He also spearheaded the defensive effort that helped limit the Hurricanes' Kameron McGusty to just just two points -- 13.4 below his season average -- on 1 of 9 shooting.
Jericole Hellems had 11 points off the bench, Markell Johnson added 10 points, four assists, four rebounds and four steals; Bates added to his freshman school record with three more blocked shots and even walkon Max Farthing chipped in with a 3-pointer.
And then there was Bryce.
While he didn't do as much as usual -- taking only five shots, scoring six points with two rebounds -- it wasn't the kind of game in which he needed to do anything special. Besides, as teammate Daniels said, his biggest contribution on this night was simply being back out on the court.
"C.J. being back is really great for us," Daniels said. "He's our team leader, our captain. Just his presence made a difference."
Like his team, the redshirt senior wing got off to a tentative start after making his first appearance just over four minutes into the game.
He got a rebound and survived a collision when he tried to take a charge -- getting called for the blocking foul instead -- during a five-minute first half run. He finally settled in after halftime, scoring all his points and handing out five assists in a successful return to action.
"The gameplan was really just to go with the flow of the game," Bryce said, adding that it was great to be back. "Whatever the five on the court that was playing well, we were going to go with it. I just wanted to provide a spark off the bench, so I just played my role tonight."
With Bryce back and everyone playing their roles, the Wolfpack finally looked like the team that was picked to finish in the top half of the ACC this season.
The trick now is to sustain the momentum gained from Wednesday's encouraging performance and start to making a move back up the league standings. The first opportunity to do that will be Saturday at home against Clemson, a team that beat State -- without Bryce -- only 11 days ago.
"Tonight, we matured a little bit because we relied on our defense even though our offense was scoring," Keatts said. "In the last few games when we weren’t scoring, we suffered and gave up too many easy baskets. We talked about building on that and the maturity of this team.
"I haven’t had this full team together for a majority of our losses, which is tough because you wonder if you had them would you have lost the game?’ We wouldn't be able to tell by that, but certainly we want to get these guys together, build on it and to mature from it. That is what I want this group to do. The ACC comes at you really fast, the games come at your fast and I need them to grow up."