RALEIGH — A year ago, Kevin Keatts iced Clemson’s Gabe DeVoe into missing a potential tying free throw with less than a second remaining at PNC Arena by calling timeout and making him think about the situation.
Saturday, when faced with an eerily similar situation against the same team in the same building, the NC State coach opted for the opposite strategy.
And it worked just as well.
Marquise Reed missed a free throw with 7.5 seconds left — his fourth straight miss in the final minute — opening the door for Braxton Beverly to stun the Tigers again with a 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave the Wolfpack a badly needed 69-67 victory.
“My coaches were all saying to me: ‘Are you going to call a timeout like last year? Are you going to call a timeout like last year?’” Keatts said. “I was like, no, because (Reed) went to the line and he missed the first one.
“I wanted to hold onto the timeout so I could figure out if we had to run something at the end, so I didn’t call it.”
Keatts credited his team’s pressing style throughout the game for wearing Clemson out and contributing to the late free throw misses.
He said that fullcourt pressure was also the reason he never lost hope of pulling the game out, even after State fell behind by six with just 26.5 seconds remaining and some among the crowd of 18,180 began heading for the exits.
“When you’re a pressing team, and my teams are always play until the clock says zero, I thought because we could press and make shots, we would have every opportunity to win the game,” Keatts said. “I thought our guys did a great job of executing down the stretch.”
The Wolfpack comeback began when Markell Johnson, playing his first game since suffering a hip injury against Pittsburgh on Jan. 12, drove into the lane and was fouled for a three-point play that cut the Tigers’ lead to 67-64.
Reed then missed the first two of his free throws to leave the door slightly ajar.
That led Clemson coach Brad Brownell to have his team foul in order to prevent State from attempting a tying 3-pointer. Beverly made both shots with 9.3 seconds to go to cut the margin to 67-66.
That’s when Reed, the Tigers’ leading scorer in the game with 19 points, stepped to the line and misfired again.
“He’s an 86 percent free throw shooter,” Brownell said. “He’s made thousands of free throws for us to win games. He’s our best player. It’s just a tough break. I feel bad for him.”
Reed and his teammates felt even worse when State’s C.J. Bryce rebounded the final miss and quickly advanced the ball upcourt. Instead of forcing up a shot when he found his path to the basket clogged, the transfer guard calmly turned and dished to Beverly waiting on the left wing.
Despite having missed all four of his previous 3-point attempts, Beverly didn’t hesitate in making his decisive shot over Clemson’s David Skara.
“As soon as it left my hand, I knew I’d made it,” Beverly said.
The shot couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the 21st-ranked Wolfpack.
Coming off a loss at Louisville less than 48 hours earlier with a tough game against third-ranked Virginia coming up on Tuesday, State (16-4, 4-3 ACC) couldn’t afford another loss — especially at home to a team that has struggled early in the conference schedule.
“We knew we had to battle back and get one here at home,” said Beverly, who finished with 12 points and five assists. “We were tied knew it was going to be tough with such a quick turnaround, but we battled through. We’ve got a lot of tough guys on this team.”
Perhaps the toughest is Johnson.
The junior point guard played 23 minutes off the bench in his return to action. While it took him awhile to get comfortable again, his shooting helped keep the Wolfpack in position to win after a five-minute scoring drought that saw the Tigers score 12 unanswered points to turn an eight-point deficit into a 53-49 lead.
Johnson made three 3-pointers and scored 14 of his team-leading 16 points in the second half .
“I just had to get back into the flow,” Johnson said. “I haven’t got up and down that much in practice.”
Although the Wolfpack still didn’t get up and down the court as fast or as many times as it would like Saturday, Johnson’s return did seem to make a difference with an offense that outscored Clemson 27-0 from beyond the 3-point arc.
That disparity from the perimeter helped offset the Tigers’ decided advantage inside. Clemson (11-8, 1-5) scored five times off the offensive boards over the final 20 minutes and outrebounded State 33-26 for the game.
But it was Brice (15 points) that got the biggest rebound of the game after State’s uncanny free throw defense against the Tigers at PNC — as the Wolfpack’s Torin Dorn jokingly put it — forced yet another miss in the final minute.
“We have some bad karma with free throws in this building,” Brownell said. “Give credit to State, they just kept hanging in there in the last minute. Unfortunately, we just didn’t finish it off.”