NC State coach Kevin Keatts was hoping that the NIT would give freshman guards Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore an opportunity to play a few more games and gain some valuable tournament experience before heading into the offseason.
It’s a goal the third-seeded Wolfpack accomplished Thursday, thanks to the play of its veteran big men.
D.J. Funderburk tied his career high with 21 points and Manny Bates went 7 for 7 from the floor on his way to a 14-point performance as State pounded Davidson 75-61 in Denton, Texas, to advance to the quarterfinals of the 16-team event.
The victory earns State another game and at least another full week of practice before taking on either top-seeded Colorado State or Buffalo in Frisco, Texas, next Thursday.
“I thought we were great,” Keatts said after his team improved to 14-10 on the season. “I thought our ball pressure was good, we moved the ball, we executed the game plan probably better than we’ve done the entire year.
“We wanted to play inside-out. Our post guys were tremendous. Their numbers are off the charts — 80% (shooting) for D.J., 100% for Manny Bates and then 50% from Jericole (Hellems). And then our guards didn’t have a great scoring first half, but they started to play in the second half and gave us a tremendous lift.”
Keatts said he was proud of his players, not only for their performance in the game but their work at practice leading up to it.
“You wouldn’t never have known what tournament we’re in,” Keatts said. “They’re excited and I’m happy they’re that way.”
The win and the way it came about helped take some of the sting off the Wolfpack’s disappointing 19-point loss at the hands of Syracuse in the opening round of the ACC Tournament last week.
State looked much more like the team that finished the regular season with five straight victories by shooting 59% from the floor overall, making five of its 10 3-pointers in the second half and holding Davidson’s usually potent perimeter shooters to just a 7 of 24 performance from beyond the arc.
“It was a bad taste,” Funderburk said of the Syracuse game. “We wanted to prove to ourselves, more than anyone else, that we could get back to that level of play (from the five previous games). And we showed that tonight.”
State wasted little time showing that it was motivated and on point.
Pounding the ball inside from the opening possession, the Wolfpack opened up a 14-4 lead by the first TV timeout and maintained a double-digit advantage for most of the period. Only a brief lapse at the end of the half allowed the Wildcats to close the gap to 40-32 at the break.
Davidson (13-9) eventually got to within four with an early second-half surge. But with Hayes hitting a pair of treys — along with one each from Hellems, freshman wing Dereon Seabron and senior Braxton Beverly — State not only weathered the storm but broke the game open with an impressive 23-8 run.
“Their 3-point percentage in the second half was 5 for 10,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said, “and each one of them was a backbreaker.”
Hayes finished with eight points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal while using his length to help harass the Wildcats’ top scorer Kellan Grady into an 0-for-6 effort on 3-pointers. Grady still managed 12 points to surpass the 2,000 career point mark.
While Moore didn’t play as well, scoring two points with an assist in 16 minutes, he and fellow freshmen Seabron (seven points) and Jaylon Gibson (three points, two rebounds) will get at least another game to gain experience and grow.
“Most programs are going home and we’re still playing,” Keatts said. “The extra practices we get, the extra opportunities I get to teach these guys … it’s always a teaching moment. It’s refreshing to see playing good basketball in March because we played against a very good Davidson team. … That was NC State basketball we played on both ends of the floor.”