CHARLOTTE — Markell Johnson wasn’t totally focused on the task at hand when he stepped to the line for the free throws that tied and won NC State’s opening ACC tournament game at Spectrum Center on Wednesday.
He admitted that his mind was on Virginia.
Not the Virginia game the Wolfpack will be playing in Thursday’s quarterfinals, but the one-point loss it suffered to the top-seeded Cavaliers in Raleigh back on Jan. 29. That game was decided when Johnson, with a chance to tie and force a second overtime, missed one of three free throws with 0.9 seconds remaining.
Determined not to let history repeat itself, the junior guard calmly sank his first attempt. Then after waiting through a timeout designed to ice him, he made the second with 2.6 seconds left to give State a 57-56 victory that greatly enhanced its chances of earning an NCAA tournament bid.
“I’ve been in a situation like that versus Virginia and I just wanted to give it back to my team for what I did (against) Virginia,” Johnson said. “That’s make the free throws.”
Johnson’s winning shots capped a heroic effort in which he scored 13 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to lead the second-largest comeback from a halftime deficit in tournament history.
The Wolfpack (22-10) trailed by 18 midway through the first half and by 16 at the break before turning things around over the final 20 minutes.
Not only did the victory strengthen State’s footing on the NCAA bubble — while virtually bursting Clemson’s — it also earned Johnson and his teammates another at avenging their close loss to the nation’s second-ranked team.
It’s a matchup State coach Kevin Keatts said he likes because of the clash of styles between the teams, with the Wolfpack preferring a up-tempo, high-possession game and the Cavaliers looking to slow things down.
But he conceded that no matter which team dictates the style of play, his players will have to execute better than they did in the first half against Clemson, when they allowed the Tigers to make 8 of 13 3-pointers while connecting on just 1 of their 10 attempts.
At the same time, Keatts is confident that even if State falls behind by double digits, it has proven its ability to keep its poise and still win the game. Not only did the Wolfpack prove it against Clemson on Wednesday, it also battled back from 14 points down in the second half of that overtime loss to Virginia.
“I like how yard we compete,” the State coach said. “There’s no quit in us.”
While Keatts believes his Wolfpack will enter its rematch with the Cavaliers as a confident team, he also concedes that could be at a physical disadvantage from having had to play on Wednesday.
As one of the tournament’s top four seeds, Virginia earned a double bye into the quarterfinals.
In order to keep from getting worn out, senior forward Torin Dorn said it’s important for State to get as much rest as possible in the 24 hours between games. But he added that the situation is something he and his teammates prepare for during the course of the regular season.
“We practice extremely hard and it’s kind of an identity for us,” he said. “So we just get back, get some rest and prepare for (Thursday).”
It will be a struggle to keep from getting worn down, especially since it was State’s aggressive fullcourt press that gave Virginia so much trouble in the second half of their regular season matchup.
The Wolfpack will at least have plenty of bodies to run in an out of the lineup in an attempt to stay fresh. All nine of the players that saw action in Wednesday’s win are averaging better than 14 minutes this season.
“When it comes to tournament time, I think we have a team that’s built for that,” the Wolfpack coach said. “I’ve got nine guys that right now I feel like I can put in the game and be ready to contribute right away. What will happen (on Thursday) is we’ve got to use some more guys and try to shorten some guys’ minutes.”
Keatts could also have an ace in the hole in the form of newly reinstated guard Eric Lockett.
The graduate transfer from Florida International hasn’t played since Feb. 13 rejoined the team this week after he was cleared of assault charges by both Wake County and his school.
Keatts said he wasn’t sure how much he might use Lockett — who is averaging 5.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists off the bench while shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. But he at least presents another option if needed.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say because he hasn’t practiced with our team yet,” Keatts said. “I couldn’t even tell you what shape he’s in.”
One thing for which he is certain is that his team is in much better shape for Selection Sunday than it was when the day started. And that the Wolfpack won’t be intimidated by playing one of the nation’s best teams.
“Our guys think that they can win every game,” Keatts said. “That’s great going in.”