RALEIGH — NC State trailed by 14 with 10 minutes remaining in regulation and by five with less than two to go in the second overtime. It lost its starting point guard to an ejection, its best outside shooter to an injury and its senior leader to fouls.
At one point during the fourth overtime, the Wolfpack lineup consisted of three freshmen, a redshirt sophomore and a player that didn’t make his first appearance on the court until well into the third overtime.
And yet, to hear coach Kevin Keatts describe it, the outcome of his team’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Nebraska was never in doubt.
“I never doubted we were going to win the game,” he said, his voice hoarse from the strain of State’s epic 104-100 quadruple-overtime victory at PNC Arena. “There were so many ups and downs. You could see it in their eyes during every timeout and huddle that they felt like they were going to win the game.”
Of all the Wolfpack players that contributed to the victory, no one had more belief than emerging star Dereon Seabron.
The 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore set ACC/Big Ten Challenge records with 39 points and 18 rebounds on 11-of-22 shooting from the floor and 17 of 20 from the line in 57 grueling minutes of work. He would have broken the school record of 59 minutes, set by Chucky Brown in 1989, had he not missed three minutes of game time with a knee injury during the second half.
Those three minutes coincided with a game-changing 14-0 spurt by the Wolfpack, which ended on a 3-pointer by Jericole Hellems that tied the game with 6:11 left in the second half and sparked a bench-clearing altercation that saw four players — three from Nebraska, one from State — disqualified from the game.
“It was nice seeing it from the sideline,” Seabron said of the run. “I like when my teammates are succeeding, but I wanted to be on the floor. At the time my knee was hurting, but I knew I just had to push through it so I could get back out there and finish out the game.”
Seabron’s role changed dramatically when he finally returned to action. With point guard Cam Hayes having been ejected for his role in the scuffle, he was forced into action as State’s primary ballhandler — a position he played extensively in high school.
Given the freedom that came with having the ball in his hands on nearly every possession, Seabron challenged the Cornhuskers to stop him from getting to the rim whenever he felt like attacking.
Which was often. And he was rarely stopped.
He scored his team’s only four points in the first overtime, including two free throws to tie the score with 16.4 seconds left. He forced the third overtime with a drive in the lane with 4.6 seconds remaining in the second and finally sealed the deal with a basket and two more free throws in the final minute of the fourth.
“I really like playing with the ball in my hands because I know I can make plays, either me scoring or finding the open man,” Seabron said. “And then, yeah, I think it was like the second overtime, I just felt like nobody on the court could stop me from getting to the rim.”
As instrumental as Seabron was in the victory, he was hardly the only hero for the Wolfpack, which improved to 6-1 while helping the ACC limit the damage in an otherwise disappointing three-day series against the Big Ten.
Casey Morsell scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half to help State get off to a strong start before leaving with an ankle injury trying to defend a drive by Nebraska’s Alonzo Verge in the final seconds of regulation.
Hellems had 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists before picking up his fifth personal foul early in the third extra period.
His exit left State without three key veteran players, forcing it to finish the game — in Keatts’ words — “with babies” on the court.
But even they held their own.
True freshman Terquavion Smith made his only 3-pointer of the game to give the Wolfpack the lead at the start of the fourth overtime. Classmate Breon Pass helped extend the game by blocking Verge’s potential game-winning shot as time expired in regulation.
And then there was big man Ebenezer Dowuona.
The second-year freshman, playing an expanded role because of a season-ending injury to starter Manny Bates, blocked a career-high eight shots to go with seven rebounds. While he scored only two baskets, one of them — a tip-in to tie the game at 92 with 10.7 seconds left in the third overtime — was one of the most important of the game.
“It’s just all work,” Dowuona said. “At that point, everybody was tired, so I felt like no other person was going to push harder. That’s what I did, and I was successful with it.”
An even more unsung hero for State was guard Thomas Allen.
A spectator for the first 43½ minutes of the game, the redshirt senior who started his college career at Nebraska made his first appearance after Hellems fouled out and immediately made his presence felt.
He made two free throws with 1:46 left in the third overtime to cut a four-point deficit to two at 92-90, then collected a steal that gave the ball right back to the Wolfpack. He then scored the game’s final point on a free throw with 1.1 second left to finally put State over the top.
“Thomas Allen is a good basketball player,” said Keatts, adding that Allen has been battling a case of plantar fasciitis. “He’s working his way back in.”
Although State shot just 37% overall and went 6 for 34 from 3-point range, it outscored Nebraska by 21 from the free throw line and outrebounded the Cornhuskers 66-51, with 24 of them coming on the offensive glass.
But for all of the Wolfpack’s heroics, Nebraska (5-3) had plenty of chances to put the game away.
In addition to holding a double-digit lead midway through the second half, the Cornhuskers led with 30 seconds or fewer in regulation and both the first and third overtimes. They also had a shot at winning at the end of the second overtime, but freshman Bryce McGowans missed a free throw with 2.5 seconds to go.
State also got a little lucky. Replays of Pass’ block on Verge at the end of regulation showed that he actually hit Cornhuskers’ point guard on the arm rather than the ball.
McGowans finished with 24 points while Verge led Nebraska with 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Regardless of how it came about, Keatts said it was the kind of game that could serve as a springboard for his team as it approaches its ACC opener against Louisville on Saturday.
“This was a great character win. It was a toughness win,” he said. “It was what NC State basketball is all about.”