CHAPEL HILL — Determining the amount of improvement a team has made from one year to the next is usually a subjective thing.
Not so in the case of the NC State basketball team.
When it comes to playing rival North Carolina at Smith Center, the Wolfpack was 55 points better Saturday than it was in its last appearance on the Tar Heels’ home court.
Instead of rolling over as it did in a humiliating 51-point defeat a year ago, this State team kept clawing back until its 3-point shooting and defensive intensity finally pushed it over the top in overtime.
The Wolfpack forced five UNC turnovers in the extra period and got standout performances from Allerik Freeman, Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn and Omer Yurtseven to earn a 95-91 upset of the Tar Heels coach Kevin Keatts described as “a culture win.”
“I had somebody tell me before the game that the last time that NC State played here, we lost by 51,” Keatts said of the Wolfpack’s 107-56 pounding at the hands of the eventual national champions. “I quickly dismissed that, because we’re not the same team. Nor is Carolina.”
In fact, both teams are now even in the ACC standings with identical 5-4 league records.
While the 10th-ranked Tar Heels have lost two in a row to fall to 16-6 overall, the Wolfpack has won two straight on the road to improve to 15-7 with a resume that includes four ranked victims and wins against all three in-state conference rivals.
This latest victory was a tribute to the late-game grit that is rapidly becoming State’s trademark under Keatts.
The Wolfpack battled back from a six-point deficit in the final 5½ minutes of regulation, then clamped down defensively in the extra period just as it did down the stretch in previous wins against Wake Forest and Pittsburgh.
It’s a pattern Keatts chalked up to conditioning.
Johnson, one of four State players to have lived through last year’s beatdown, had a different explanation for it.
“Keatts got us together and taught us to believe, made us believe, and we came out on top” the sophomore guard said. “We’re definitely mentally tough.”
State needed every bit of that toughness to come out on top despite allowing UNC to shoot 52.8 percent for the game, make four more field goals and pound out a healthy 48-34 rebounding margin.
The Wolfpack overcame those disadvantages by making 15 3-pointers, getting 20 or more points from three different players and despite getting outrebounded by 14, still managing to score more second-chance points than the Tar Heels.
Freeman emerged from a recent shooting slump by making all seven of his 3-point attempts — the most ever by a UNC opponent without a miss — on his way to a career-high 29 points. Dorn made four treys and scored 20 points in 42 minutes of action.
“It was fun being in this environment,” Freeman, a graduate transfer from Baylor, said of his perfect shooting performance. “When you play in this environment you don’t really think. You just go out there and play. I was just out there hooping.”
While Freeman and Dorn helped State stay close throughout, along with Yurtseven’s 16 points and 13 rebounds, it was Johnson that put his team on his shoulders and carried it over the finish line by scoring seven of the Wolfpack’s final 10 points in regulation.
Taking the ball right at the Tar Heel defense, the sophomore guard scored with 57 seconds remaining to tie the score at 81. Then after Joel Berry’s driving shot hung tantalizingly on the rim before falling off, Johnson attacked the basket again to score to put the State ahead with 10.9 seconds left.
Cam Johnson sent the game into overtime with a pair of clutch free throws. But Markell Johnson carried his momentum over into the extra period by hitting two free throws and a 3-pointer to get the Wolfpack off and running again. After scoring just 18 points in his four games combined since returning from suspension, Markell Johnson hit for 20 on Saturday, to go along with 11 assists.
“He’s a guy that will pass the ball,” Keatts said of Markell Johnson. “If he has 15 assists and no points, he’s happy. I love that about him, but I told him that in the position he’s in for this particular team, we need him to score the ball also.”
Another player that was told by his coach to be more aggressive offensively is UNC’s Theo Pinson and he too heeded the advice.
At one point in the second half, the senior guard scored 12 straight points for his team on the way to a career-high 22. He also pulled down a personal best 15 rebounds. But his zeal to help pull the Tar Heels through got the best of him in overtime when he missed two key free throws and turned the ball over trying to force a shot up in transition.
“We just didn’t make the plays at the end that we usually make,” Pinson said.
It wasn’t just at the end.
In contrast to State’s hot shooting, UNC made only four of its 19 3-point attempts. Berry was held to just six points on 3 of 12 shooting. When it came to free throws, the Tar Heels converted only 11 of 20, including 4 of 8 by Luke Maye, who led all scorers in the game with 31 points.
UNC’s fate was ultimately sealed in the final seconds when, trailing by only two, Kenny Williams deflected an inbounds pass to teammate Sterling Manley. Instead of getting a chance to tie or win the game, the Tar Heels gave the turnover right back when Manley panicked and threw the ball away.
While UNC’s inability to convert its opportunities sends it back to the drawing board looking to regroup, State’s latest signature win earned Keatts a trip back to Raleigh for a Bell Tower celebration.
“It will be my first trip to the Bell Tower,” Keatts said, “and I’m excited to do it.”