CHARLOTTE — Three and a half minutes into NC State’s 59-58 win over Clemson in their ACC Tournament opening game, Kevin Keatts called for sophomore forward D.J. Funderburk to enter the game as a sub.
Funderburk went to the scorer’s table, stripped off his warmup shirt and was about to check into the game.
“Coach was yelling,” he said. “I looked back at him and he was saying, ‘You don’t have a jersey!’”
Indeed, Funderburk was about to enter the game wearing a white T-shirt.
A frustrated Keatts called the player back to the bench and subbed in Devon Daniels instead.
That was NC State’s first half in a nutshell. With a possible NCAA berth on the line against fellow bubble team Clemson, in what many suspected might be a winner-gets-in elimination game, the Wolfpack looked completely unprepared to play.
The Pack shot just 1 of 10 on threes in the first half and 35.5 percent from the field, while Clemson hit seven of its first eight from 3-point range and shot 51.6 percent, building an 18-point first-half lead and going to the half up 16.
“We were all disappointed,” Keatts said. “The team that you saw in the first half was not NC State basketball, and for us to get to this point and play that way we did in the first half, we weren’t happy. So honestly, it was — I’m not a guy to yell all the time, but there was a little yelling going on.”
The only bright spot for State was that things could have been far worse. Junior point guard Markell Johnson kept State afloat, scoring 10 first-half points. With four field goals and three assists in the first half, he contributed to seven of the Pack’s 11 baskets.
“With his defense and his scoring, he just kept us in the game,” said Wyatt Walker.
The halftime yelling seemed to work, as State rallied in the second half.
“It wasn’t about X’s and O’s,” Keatts said of his halftime message. “It was about how much heart and desire and effort you would put into it, and I told them, I said, ‘If you played extremely hard, we’ll come out with a win.’”
Keatts was correct. In the second half, State came alive, hitting 5 of 11 from three and holding Clemson to 16 second-half points.
The result was the second-largest comeback in ACC Tournament history.
Johnson continued his heroics, hitting three out of five threes in the second half to put up a game-high 23 points — the only NC State player in double figures. A 3-pointer with 5:38 left gave State the lead, against all odds. He followed up with another three to put the Pack up four.
“Markell Johnson,” Walker said when asked about the game’s turning point. “Can I just say that as a turning point? Markell Johnson.”
With 2.6 seconds left and State trailing by one, Johnson drove and was fouled, then hit both free throws to give the Pack a win that might have sealed a trip to March Madness.
Torin Dorn had a game-high 12 rebounds for the Pack to go with eight points. Funderburk added eight points and four rebounds, once managers ran to the locker room to retrieve his game jersey.
“I didn’t think anyone noticed,” Funderburk said afterward, explaining that he just grabbed a white T-shirt instead of the white jersey, without noticing.
Much like the rest of his team, it just took him a while to get things going.
“You talk about a 12-noon game,” Keatts said. “I told these guys I don’t think they woke up until about 1.”
No. 8 seeded NC State will face top-seeded Virginia on Thursday at 12:30 p.m.