RALEIGH — NC State won a basketball game for the first time in 2021 on Wednesday, ending a four-game losing streak by beating Wake Forest 72-67 on Wednesday at PNC Arena.
In the process, though, it may have suffered a damaging loss.
Leading scorer Devon Daniels, who had 20 points in the victory, left the game with 9:01 remaining with what appeared to be a serious injury to his left knee.
His absence sent the Wolfpack into a tailspin that allowed the Deacons to narrow what was once an 18-point deficit down to single digits. Although coach Kevin Keatts’ team was able to hold on, thanks to the strong play of junior Jericole Hellems and freshman Shakeel Moore down the stretch, there was an ominous feel to the victory as State awaits word on Daniels’ status moving forward.
“Anytime you see somebody go down, especially with a knee, it’s scary,” said Hellems, who scored seven of his 17 points after Daniels went out, including two big free throws with 49.7 seconds remaining. “You don’t want to see your brother down. We got a little worried, but we came back and finished the game like we’re supposed to.”
Daniels’ injury put a damper on what was otherwise a return to normalcy for the Wolfpack (7-5, 3-4 ACC) after a lengthy pause because of injuries and COVID-19 issues.
For the first time in nearly a month, the team had all its members healthy and available for the two practices leading up to Wednesday’s game. And for the first time since the opening 20 minutes of its game against Clemson on Jan. 5, State looked like its fast-paced, aggressive pressing self against an improving Wake team fresh off its first ACC victory under new coach Steve Forbes.
“It felt good to get out and play defense like we like to play it,” Keatts said. “We’re not pressing as much because we haven’t had the bodies and we haven’t had a chance to press in practice to get better. We haven’t been in great shape because of what we’ve been through, but for the last couple of days we’ve been able to get after each other and we got better in that area.”
That improvement helped force 20 Wake turnovers, leading to 24 State points.
That and a defense that held the Deacons to less than 40% shooting for most of the game helped the Wolfpack build a 52-34 lead with 11:02 left.
The advantage was still a healthy 14 at 53-39 two minutes later when Daniels — who went 7 of 10 from the floor (3 of 4 from 3-point range) and was just one rebound away from a double-double with 20 points and nine boards — went down to the floor as he made a move to the basket.
Television replays showed Daniels’ left knee buckling as he attempted to push off on it. He was helped off the floor by two managers, favoring the leg. After an examination in the tunnel just off the floor, the redshirt senior guard hobbled to the locker room using a crutch.
Though Keatts didn’t have any details on Daniels’ status, he did say it was likely he would undergo an MRI sometime soon to assess the situation.
Whether the Wolfpack lost its focus in the immediate aftermath of its leader’s injury or the Deacons (4-7, 1-7) simply began making shots, the game changed dramatically as soon as Daniels left the floor.
Led by the inside play of big man Ody Oguama and the long-range shooting of Daivien Williamson, Wake outscored State 13-5 over the next 2:03 to narrow the gap to just 58-52 with 3 1/2 minutes still to play.
Williamson, a transfer who came to the Deacons with Forbes from East Tennessee State, finished with four 3-pointers and 22 points. Ogauma had 11 points, seven of which came during his team’s late comeback bid.
“I don’t know if they made the run because Devon went out of the game or if they would have made the run regardless,” Keatts said.
One thing he said he did know is that he’s proud of the way the young players who were asked to fill in for Daniels, specifically freshmen guards Moore and Cam Hayes, rose to the occasion with the game on the line.
Moore made a clutch jumper in the lane while Hayes hit three of four free throws in the final minute to help hold off the Deacons and seal a victory the State coach said was worth savoring regardless of Daniels’ status.
“I’ve learned in this league that wins are golden,” Keatts said. “So we’re going to pray for Devon and make sure everything’s OK. But we’re going to enjoy as much as we can our win, and we’re going to try to build on it. Our guys in the locker room are happy. It’s been a long couple of weeks for us.”
It’s been just as long for Wake which, like State, endured a lengthy COVID-related pause earlier this season.
The Deacons came into the game on a high after beating Pittsburgh on Saturday. But after shooting 52% from the floor and making 15 of 32 3-pointers against the Panthers, they cooled off considerably against the Wolfpack — compounding their trouble holding onto the ball by making only 8 of 24 from beyond the arc.
“This is the most disappointed I’ve been as the coach of Wake Forest since I took the job,” Forbes said. “Not because we lost, but because of the way we lost.
“We didn’t play well. I give credit to NC State. We looked lost against their full-court pressure, as if we hadn’t even worked on it. We were very tentative, didn’t want the ball and didn’t want to drive against it.”