A very damp Kevin Keatts made a point to note in the aftermath that his team celebrates every win just like this, from Austin Peay to William and Mary, with ice cream on the road and water-bottle showers like the one he just endured everywhere.
N.C. State still had plenty to celebrate after Sunday’s 77-69 win over North Carolina, as rare as those wins have been for the Wolfpack in this rivalry. But if last season taught Keatts and Terquavion Smith and Casey Morsell and the other survivors anything, it’s that no win should be taken for granted, even when you’ve got a bunch of them.
It’s a team that has an identity, chemistry and personality, keeps winning and keeps having fun doing it.
In this upside-down season, the Wolfpack is everything North Carolina usually is and suddenly isn’t, right down to adopting the rhetoric that in the past has usually come out of Chapel Hill, and did again Friday, even if Keatts did it with a smile.
“I don’t put one win over the other,” Keatts said. “It was a win we needed to have and I’m happy to have it. It’s not a rivalry, right? So why would I care?”
In the space of a year, all the tables have been turned, all of the shoes are on the other feet. With its sixth win over UNC in the past 37 meetings, N.C. State has beaten both Duke and North Carolina at PNC Arena this season for the first time since 2013.
“It feels good, man,” D.J. Burns said. “Especially when they expected us to win zero of them.”
As North Carolina stumbles through what may very well turn out to be the worst season by a preseason No. 1 in history, the Tar Heels are so much less than what the sum of (most of) these same parts last spring, apparently irreparably broken — Hubert Davis’ protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
And the Wolfpack, which could do no right last season, can suddenly do no wrong. Only one of these teams looks like it’s having any fun at all, and if Sunday was anything — for the Wolfpack and its fans — it was fun. When Jarkel Joiner hit the 3-pointer to put N.C. State up 67-60, having almost single-handedly reeled in a six-point North Carolina lead, PNC Arena hasn’t been louder or more ecstatic this season. And not in a long time.
The crowd danced through the entire timeout as the techno staple “Sandstorm” blared. And when the song ran out, someone in the control room hit play and the song started over from the beginning and everyone just kept on dancing.
“It’s great vibes in here, a great feeling to see everybody happy,” Smith said.
Everything’s coming up Wolfpack now, from the three-hour infomercial during Saturday night’s Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium — Dave Doeren was back again Sunday, bringing his football team onto the court during a first-half television timeout to remind the Tar Heels of a different N.C. State win — to a basketball season that continues to be everything last season wasn’t.
From 21 losses to 21 wins, N.C. State can now stake a legitimate claim to be the Triangle’s best basketball team, although the Wolfpack still has to go to Cameron to prove it. But unlike the Tar Heels, N.C. State should be safely in the NCAA tournament, secure enough to avoid any bubble drama.
The roots of the Wolfpack’s resurrection have been well-documented, from a total staff makeover to the transfer-portal addition of veteran leadership and electric shot-making from Joiner, Burns and Jack Clark. But the way that cosmic gumbo has all come together, the chemistry that has developed among a bunch of newcomers and a bunch of guys who stuck around after getting their teeth beat in over and over again last year, is at the root of N.C. State’s success.
So the Wolfpack celebrated again, as it has after all of its wins. Ascending. Enjoying. Thriving.
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