RALEIGH — Shortly before the start of Tuesday’s basketball season opener against Bucknell, NC State announced that veteran guard Thomas Allen had received a one-game suspension from the NCAA for his participation in an unsanctioned summer league.
Less than two minutes in, the Wolfpack lost center Manny Bates to a shoulder injury when he crashed into the stands chasing a loose ball.
It was hardly the way any team would want to start a new season. But that’s what coach Kevin Keatts liked so much about his team’s 88-70 victory at PNC Arena.
“I don’t know that we could have had a better opening game,” Keatts said. “What I mean by that is just having some adversity. They jumped out on us 13-1. We handled that. I thought some guys came off the bench and gave us a tremendous lift. We started off slow, finished the half and from that point on, we played NC State basketball.”
Whether it was a case of opening night jitters or the shock of seeing their star big man head back to the locker room in pain, the Wolfpack looked out of sorts during the early going.
It took State more than three minutes to get their first point, a free throw by Dereon Seabron, and another two minutes after that for Cam Hayes to hit a 3-pointer for its first basket. By that time, as Keatts mentioned, the Bison had already staked themselves to a double-digit lead.
But the Wolfpack didn’t flinch.
With senior guard Jericole Hellems taking the lead, both in the scoring column and with his calm leadership, State slowly battled back. It took its first lead in the final minute of the half at 40-38 on a basket by freshman Terquavion Smith before Bucknell answered back to tie the game heading into the break.
“Give credit to Jericole,” Keatts said of his on-court leader, who finished with a game-high 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including three 3-pointers. “He’s a senior who’s been there before. He was very calm in the locker room and very calm in timeouts.”
That calm had a positive effect on his younger teammates, especially second-year freshman big man Ebenezer Dowuona.
Pressed into extended service because of Bates’ absence, the 6-foot-11 native of Ghana held his own during a career-long 25-minute run, finishing with 10 rebounds, including four off the offensive glass, to go along with two blocked shots.
“It was really about next man up,” Dowuona said. “We came up, executed and did our job as bigs. … The whole of last year I had eight rebounds. Today I got 10 rebounds. It’s a great feeling. I’ve just got to build on it.”
Building on the momentum of their strong finish to the first half, Dowuona and his teammates picked up right where they left off in the second.
The Wolfpack picked up the intensity on defense and the tempo on offense to outscore Bucknell 48-30 over the final 20 minutes. Seabron did a majority of the damage, picking up 11 of his 18 points and seven of his 11 rebounds in the second half.
Virginia transfer Casey Morsell was also in double figures with 13 points. But the real revelation was Smith.
Known for his prolific scoring at Farmville Central, which he led to three state championships, the slender 6-foot-4 gunner lived up to his reputation by scoring 20 points in his college debut. He also led the team with four steals.
“In practice every day we go hard at each other and it translates to the game, so that made it very much easier,” Smith said. “For me, I don’t get nervous. We all lace them up the same way. I go at them because I know they’re going to go at me.”
As satisfied as Keatts was with the performance of his young players and as excited as he was about the opening night win, there was still a 6-foot-11, 230-pound elephant in the room that couldn’t be ignored as he met with the media after the final buzzer.
Even though he tried his best to do so.
“I don’t want my mind to go to the worst situation, so I have no idea what the situation is,” Keatts said, adding that Bates will undergo an MRI on Wednesday. “I just look forward to getting the results and I’ll keep praying for him.”