RALEIGH — If Wednesday’s game against No. 7 Auburn was a measuring stick for the NC State basketball team, you might want to put the ruler away and bring out a tape measure.
Because after the Wolfpack beat the Tigers 78-71 at PNC Arena on a night in which its top two scorers combined for just seven points and five rebounds with four turnovers, the ceiling for coach Kevin Keatts’ team just got a lot higher.
Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson and Devon Daniels took turns going on scoring streaks and State forced Auburn into 25 turnovers to key a performance that was as much a statement as it was a win.
“Auburn’s a really good team,” Beverly said. “To get that win, it shows we’re not messing around. We’ve got a lot of talent and we’re here to play.”
The Wolfpack (10-1) wasted little time enlightening the Tigers aware to that fact.
With Beverly getting the ball rolling by hitting a pair of early 3-pointers, State jumped out to an 18-6 lead after 10 minutes and despite a few late first half hiccups, still led by eight at halftime.
Then after Auburn (9-2) finally stopped turning the ball over and began asserting itself on the offensive boards to tie the game at 47 midway through the second half, Johnson went on a tear that saw him go on a personal 10-2 run to put State back in control.
Daniels took over from there by scoring four times in a five-possession stretch to finish off the Wolfpack’s first ever win against a top 10 opponent at their current home and first since upsetting No. 8 Kentucky 54-51 at Reynolds Coliseum on Feb. 2, 1986.
At one point, Johnson and Daniels combined to score 24 straight points for their team during a stretch in which Keatts said it looked as though the two were “playing horse there for awhile.”
“I was just feeling it,” Johnson said. “My teammates gave me the confidence I needed to go out there and play and I was just feeling it.”
Johnson finished with a career-high 27 points while Beverly and Daniels contributed 15 each. Between them, they were a blistering 21 of 34 from the floor while making 10 of 18 from beyond the 3-point arc.
It was a performance made all the more impressive by the fact that it helped offset off nights by the usually high scoring Torin Dorn, who managed just five points on 2 of 6 shooting, and C.J. Bryce, who didn’t make a field goal while scoring just a single point.
“It’s definitely cool to have a deep team and a team where even if you have an off night like myself and C.J., you have guys that can pick up the slack for you,” said Dorn, who still found a way to contribute with a rebound basket that helped cut off an Auburn rally and a pair of free throws that helped put the game away in the final two minutes.
“That’s the mark of a good team, having multiple guys that can come in and make a difference.”
While the Wolfpack’s offense too center stage — it shot 57.7 percent in the second half and 52.8 percent for the game while making 10 of 22 3-pointers — Keatts was most pleased with the way his team defended.
Not only did State force the Tigers into missing their first 10 3-point attempts on the way to a 5 for 25 effort, but it also pressured its opponent into a season high number of turnovers. Keatts was especially pleased with a first half stretch in which the Wolfpack forced Auburn to cough the ball up on nine of 11 turnovers.
In doing so, State was able to maintain the early lead it built despite cooling off considerably on its own offensive end.
“Today’s kids define how they’re playing by whether the ball goes in the hole or not,” Keatts said. “We’ve talked about if you’re not scoring, it’s not the end of the world. Make sure the other team is not scoring. We’re maturing in that area.
“A lot of times it takes the air out of you. When you look at Auburn, when we were up (16-8), I thought they struggled because the ball wasn’t going in.”
Keatts called the Tigers an “Elite Eight or Final Four caliber team.”
Asked what that made his team after beating such an elite opponent, the second-year coach hedged his bets.
“I’ll leave that up to you guys to write about,” Keatts said before later adding that he’s excited where his team is at, even if it’s not yet in the national rankings.
“We didn’t accidentally become 10-1,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to stay hungry and humble and continue to get better.”