Focused Wolfpack strengthens its resume by squeezing Orange

NC State puts on a clinic against Syracuse's zone while clamping down with its own defense for an important 73-58 victory

Wyatt Walker outmuscles Syracuse's Tyus Battle for one of his nine rebounds during NC State's win on Wednesday (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

  RALEIGH — Things didn’t turn out well the last time Kevin Keatts ventured a peek ahead at the upcoming schedule his NC State basketball team was about to play.

  So he learned his lesson and stopped doing it.

  “About 3-4 weeks ago, I made a mistake and looked at our schedule and it scared the heck out of me,” the Wolfpack coach said of a difficult stretch that featured five ranked opponents in an eight-game span. “We lost (four of) those games, too. I think I jinxed them.”

  Keatts and his players have since refocused their efforts on the here and now, and it showed in a dominant 73-58 victory against Syracuse at PNC Arena on Wednesday.

  Although State is determined to stick with its one game at a time approach from here on out, the victory — coupled with Saturday’s road win at Pittsburgh — has helped the Wolfpack solidify its big picture position on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

  Braxton Beverly scored 21 points and Torin Dorn rallied from a shaky start to add a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds, as State got back to .500 in the ACC and began building some momentum heading into this weekend’s showdown at No. 2 Duke.

  “All the games down the stretch are very important,” said Dorn, who was 1 of 6 with misses on both his free throws in the first half before finally heating up. “Last year we were in a situation where we won five of our last six and that put us in a good position for the tournament. We’re in a similar situation this year, very similar standings.”

  Those standings are somewhat deceiving, though, thanks to the ACC’s unbalanced schedule.

  While both State and Syracuse came into the game with identical overall records, the Orange was 8-3 in the league compared to just 5-6 for the Wolfpack.

  But as Keatts pointed out, his team has had some “great losses” against a slate that’s included games against ACC frontrunners North Carolina (twice) Virginia, Louisville, Virginia Tech while Syracuse has yet to play three of those four teams. It’s only ACC win thus far against an opponent with a winning conference record came against a Duke team that was missing two starters for all or most of the game.

  That’s what made Wednesday’s matchup so important. And the Wolfpack (18-7) rose to the occasion.

  With the exception of one momentary hiccup late in the first half, in which State turned the ball over six times to allow a 12-point lead shrink to just 30-27 at the break, the Wolfpack put on a clinic on how to attack Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone.

  Beverly forced the Orange (17-8) to extend by hitting four of his eight 3-point attempts. He hit one from distance and converted three free throws after being fouled attempting another during an 8-0 run that regained some separation for State early in the second half.

  Then, given more room to operate in the soft middle of the defense, Dorn and big man D.J. Funderburk took over to help their team pull away.

  Dorn went 6 of 8 from the floor over the final 20 minutes, mostly on 10-footers in the late, while Funderburk worked the baseline to score 12 points on 3 of 4 shooting and a perfect 6 of 6 from the line.

  Not only did the Wolfpack execute its offensive game plan to perfection, it also made 20 of 24 free throws while outrebounding the taller Orange 42-31.

  “They want you to pass it around and take long threes,” said Beverly, who has made 13 of his last 22 3-point attempts since his forgettable 0 for 9 performance against Virginia Tech four games ago.

  “Luckily we were able to get into the middle, get it down to the short corner and get open looks. Once you hit two or three, it spreads things out, opens up driving lanes and get easy ones in the lane.”

  As efficient as State was on the offensive end, both Keatts and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said the difference in the game was the Wolfpack’s defense. The Wolfpack coach specifically singled out guard Devon Daniels for the job he did on the Orange’s leading score Tyus Battle.

  Battle came into the game averaging 18 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent. Wednesday, however, he was limited to just seven while combining with Elijah Hughes and Oshae Brissett — the team’s second- and third-leading scorers — to go just 6 of 28 from the floor.

   “I thought that was our best defensive effort, especially when you talk about the ACC,” Keatts said, adding that “at home, we’ve got to protect our house and play with energy and passion.”

  State played the game with only eight available players with reserve guard Blake Harris out with the flu and graduate transfer Eric Lockett missing because of “personal reasons.”

  After the game, Keatts also announced that Kentucky transfer Sacha Killeya-Jones, who is sitting out this season under NCAA rules, is “currently not a member of our program.” Keatts declined to offer any details on the situation or to speculate on whether Killeya-Jones will ever play for the Wolfpack.