Pack fights past Pitt 86-80 after losing Johnson to injury

NC State’s Keatts talks about win over Pitt and the play of Eric Lockett

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.

N.C. State began Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh with a full complement of 10 players.

Two minutes into the game, the Pack had nine.

Midway through the first half, the Pack had eight.

After Wyatt Walker was ejected and Markell Johnson was injured on a scary fall, the No. 15 Wolfpack found itself shorthanded against a Panthers team that’s rejuvenated under first-year coach Jeff Capel.

But in a gutsy effort, the Wolfpack recovered and took an 86-80 victory at PNC Arena.

“What a game for us,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “We found a way to win a game when things weren’t going our way. I think we’re building something really special here where our guys are learning how to fight and really compete every day.”

The Pack (14-2, 2-1 ACC) was coming off the disappointment of the 90-82 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday. It was a noon start and the game atmosphere several notches below that on Tuesday when the Tar Heels were at PNC Arena.

The Wolfpack got a second-half lift Saturday from DJ Funderburk and Eric Lockett -- Funderburk (18 points, 9 rebounds) working hard around the offensive boards and Lockett (17 points) making some critical 3-point shots down the stretch as N.C. State surged from behind.

But everyone had to do their part this day for N.C. State. Braxton Beverly had a key 3-pointer and driving basket in the final minutes, and C.J. Bryce a jumper and some critical foul shots.

Devon Daniels, who had 19 points, scored from the lane to give the Pack a 79-71 lead with a minute to play.

That was just enough to hold off the Panthers (11-5, 1-2 ACC), who got 25 points from freshman guard Xavier Johnson and slowed the Pack at times with an active matchup zone.

The Pack out-rebounded the Panthers 44-34, getting 21 offensive boards that it converted into 24 second-chance points. The Pack also forced 17 turnovers.

“Offensive rebounds killed us,” Capel said. “We have to value the basketball. Those two things were the difference in the game. We’re still learning, we’re still growing. We’re trying to figure out how to win on the road and it’s tough in this league.”

The last thing Keatts could have expected would have been to be two players down midway through the first half.

Walker was ejected two minutes into the game. Attempting to draw a charge on Pitt’s Johnson, the Pack center was called for blocking as both players fell to the floor under the basket.

Johnson attempted to step over Walker, his foot brushing Walker’s knee, and Walker then reached out and grabbed Johnson by the leg, tripping him. The referees -- A.J. Desai, Tim Clougherty and Jerry Heater -- conferred for several minutes before ruling it a flagrant-2 technical foul and ejecting Walker.

That was the referees’ decision. The Pack then lost Markell Johnson on a play that brought some flashbacks for older Wolfpack fans. Johnson attempted to block a shot by the Panthers’ Jared Wilson-Frame but flipped over his shoulder while airborne, landing on the flat of his back on the baseline below the basket.

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts and trainer Drew Moore check on Markell Johnson (11) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Pittsburgh at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Johnson was down for several minutes before being helped to the locker room, his day done. He did return to the bench in the second half.

Keatts had no further update on Johnson’s condition after the game.

It was a nasty fall, one reminiscent of the Pack’s David Thompson slamming to the floor during a 1974 NCAA Tournament game at Reynolds Coliseum. Thompson hit his head and was bloodied, and rushed to a hospital, although he later returned to Reynolds. Johnson was more fortunate.

The Pack led by as many as nine points after Johnson’s departure, taking a 35-26 lead on a Lockett 3-pointer. But the Pack’s offense went dry in the last six minutes of the first half as the Panthers took a late lead -- their first of the game -- before a Lockett drive gave NCSU a 41-40 lead at the break.

Daniels, who did not have a basket in the loss to UNC, had 15 first-half points for the Pack.

NC State's Eric Lockett talks about the Wolfpack's victory over Pittsburgh Panthers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 12, 2019.

The Pitt zone continued to be effective in the second half as the Pack continued to miss perimeter shots. Nothing came easily for either team offensively but the Panthers maintained a lead much of the second half with a mix of drives and 3’s until Lockett nailed back-to-back 3’s to lift the Pack ahead with 5:41 remaining.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.