RALEIGH — Facing the prospect of a loss that would severely damage its NCAA Tournament hopes, NC State tightened up its defense late and got a big scoring boost from reserve forward Jericole Hellems to bounce back for a 77-73 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Coach Kevin Keatts admitted that he doesn’t know exactly what to tell his players at this time of year. He feels the need to tell them just how important each game is to their NCAA Tournament credentials, but he’s afraid they will be tight or nervous if he spends too much time talking about it.
Whether he mentions it or not, the players know.
“Right now we talk about it a lot,” said freshman center Manny Bates, who scored a career-high 13 points. “Every game is a big game for us, so we’re just going to have to come in and play our hearts out.”
Nonetheless, NC State (18-11, 9-9 ACC) trailed 58-51 with 10 minutes remaining as Pitt looked more like the desperate team for most of the game. But the Wolfpack tightened up its defense and forced the Panthers to miss eight of their next nine field goal attempts.
Hellems, meanwhile, scored nine points in three minutes, including a 3-pointer from the baseline with 6:53 remaining that gave the Wolfpack its first lead of the game at 62-61. Hellems also sprinted down the floor for a layup and a tip-in and scored on a 15-foot jumper during his personal scoring binge.
Pitt briefly regained the lead with two Eric Hamilton free throws, but the Wolfpack scored the next eight points to grab a 70-63 lead and held on to win.
“For us, it was just being positive and staying positive throughout the whole game, uplifting each other so we can finish the game off strong the way we did,” Hellems said.
Hellems and C.J. Bryce each scored 16 points to lead four Wolfpack players in double figures. D.J. Funderburk scored 14 points, and Bates added a career-high 13.
Au’Diese Toney scored 24 points to lead the Panthers, while Xavier Johnson added 13 points and Justin Champagnie and Hamilton had 10 apiece. Pitt (15-15, 6-13) suffered its sixth straight loss as its overall record fell to .500.
The loss came just a week after Pitt fell by three at home against Virginia. In his second season as coach, Jeff Capel didn’t seem interested in moral victories.
“The bottom line is that we have to win basketball games,” Capel said.
The same is true for NC State, which was caught off guard by Pitt’s hot shooting for most of the game. The Panthers were averaging just 29.2% from 3-point range but made five of their first seven from beyond the arc as the Wolfpack opted not to close out hard on most of their shooters.
But led by Devon Daniels, who held Xavier Johnson to three points in the second half after he scored 10 before halftime, the Wolfpack found their defensive rhythm just in time.
“We found a way to win a game when we were not playing very good basketball,” Keatts said. “I thought the last five or six minutes of the game was when we started to play.”
Pitt: The Panthers demonstrated that they hadn’t lost their fight even though they hadn’t won since Feb. 8. But as has often been the case, they struggled to make shots down the stretch after playing well for most of the game.
NC State: The Wolfpack’s fight for an NCAA Tournament bid would have gotten much tougher if it had been defeated by an opponent that had lost five in a row. To get into the tournament, you need to win the games you are supposed to win and get a few victories that people weren’t expecting over highly regarded opponents. Monday’s game against Duke, which NC State defeated 88-66 on Feb. 19, is another opportunity for a win that will turn some heads.
Bates delivered his first career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also was effective defensively in his familiar role as rim protector, blocking five shots. “He’s a freshman and he’s gotten better,” Keatts said. “If he starts scoring the ball offensively, then he could be a very good basketball player for NC State.”
Guard Trey McGowens scored just seven points but contributed team highs of five assists and five steals for Pitt…Hellems’ scoring total was a career-best in an ACC game…In a game decided by four points, free throws played an important role as both teams attempted 27. NC State made 20. Pitt made 15.
Pitt: Plays at Georgia Tech on Wednesday.
NC State: Visits Duke on Monday.