The turning point of N.C. State’s basketball season came in a loss at Clemson.
Or, to be more specific, after the loss at Clemson.
“I think the biggest thing from Clemson was we just didn’t like the way we got out-toughed,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said Saturday. “It was going around the locker room that we just got out-toughed that game.
“We complained. We cried about every call we didn’t get. So we decided to stop complaining and just start playing basketball and playing tough.”
Since that self-evaluation, the Wolfpack has beaten Duke, Virginia Tech and then Miami. N.C. State suddenly is 14-4 overall and 4-3 in the ACC as the Pack heads to Atlanta for a game Tuesday against Georgia Tech (8-9, 1-6) at McCamish Pavilion.
The Pack also goes to North Carolina later in the week. But Keatts is a next-game-only kind of coach who was quick to deflect any rivalry talk and point out Monday the Yellow Jackets also beat Miami at home this season, even if it was Georgia Tech’s only ACC win.
“We just want to stay focused and locked in,” Keatts said. “We’re not good enough to say we can look at anybody and say because of their record it’s an automatic win.”
Georgia Tech has had its struggles, primarily putting the ball in the basket. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 64.7 points a game in ACC play and 40.8% from the field — only Louisville is worse in both categories this season.
“To win a game in this league you’ve got to get to 70 points,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said Monday. “We’ve always been good defensively … but we’ve got to be better at eliminating those (scoring) droughts.
“I think we’re good with our transition offense and on the offensive glass but we struggle when it’s five-on-five against a set defense in the half court. It’s a make-or-miss game. I thought we’d be a better shooting team.”
The Wolfpack is shooting 40.9% from the field in ACC games and the Pack’s 3-point percentage (.297) is 13th in the league. But N.C. State leads the ACC in turnover margin and offensive rebounds (12.4) per game while averaging 73.3 points a game.
After leading wire-to-wire in beating Duke and Virginia Tech, the Pack had to claw from behind Saturday against Miami, late in regulation and again in overtime. A career day from sophomore forward Ernest Ross — 17 points, 9 rebounds — was the difference in an 83-81 victory at PNC Arena.
“Coach said it was grit time and we just left it all on the court,” Smith said. “We always knew we could do it but we had to perform like it.”
It was grit that was missing in the Pack’s 78-64 loss at Clemson on Dec. 30. The Tigers, off to a 7-0 start in the league, won many of the 50/50 battles for loose balls and were tougher around the basket.
But that was then.
“I feel like it’s coming together and we’re closing out games,” Wolfpack center D.J. Burns Jr. said after the Miami win. “It’s something we struggled with early in the season with some losses, and we’ve picked it up a lot and found a way to manage a win.”
Burns has been a big part of that, drawing much attention for his presence — it’s big — and his back-to-the-basket play. But he had a team-high seven assists Saturday, spotting open teammates.
“I think that’s a little bit of an underrated part of his game because he is a good passer,” Keatts said Monday. “He’s almost like a point guard from the center position because he always makes the right play.”
But Burns’ emergence is only part of the Wolfpack turnaround. Point guard Jarkel Joiner has been better defensively, Keatts said. Smith, who was 3-for-13 on 3-pointers against Clemson, isn’t settling for as many outside bombs but mixing it up better by attacking the basket and leads the ACC in scoring (18.7 points).
Casey Morsell has been steady. Ross was the star Saturday. Greg Gantt has done his part, Keatts said, with forward Jack Clark sidelined with an injury. It has been a team thing.
Next up: at Georgia Tech, where the Wolfpack won 76-61 last season as Smith scored 26.
“We’ve got to be the road warriors, again,” Joiner said Saturday. “We’ve got to go get another one.”