Wolf­pack bounces back, Heels bot­tom out

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Sports - BY LUKE DECOCK lde­[email protected]­sob­server.com

Tues­day night might as well have been Mardi Gras the way ev­ery­one was still hun­gover four days later. While North Carolina blew a tire against Louisville in Chapel Hill in its worst home loss since Matt Do­herty was in charge, N.C. State had to dig deep to squeak past Pitts­burgh, a team the Tar Heels beat by 25 on the road just a week ago.

Ri­valry games like UNC-N.C. State and Duke-Carolina made the ACC what it is to­day, but they can some­times take a toll. The ef­fort and emo­tion ex­pended in to­tal pur­suit of vic­tory left both the Tar Heels and Wolf­pack strug­gling at times Satur­day in games that should have of­fered a soft land­ing, at home against teams likely to fin­ish in the sec­ond di­vi­sion of the ACC.

Down five mid­way through the sec­ond half and suf­fer­ing through an 0-for-13 shoot­ing drought, N.C. State re­lied on the un­ex­pected con­tri­bu­tions of Eric Lock­ett and equally un­ex­pected foul-free play from D.J. Fun­der­burk to rally for an 86-80 win Satur­day that was nei­ther easy nor pretty but was no less vi­tal.

“It’s big for us,” N.C. State for­ward Torin Dorn said. “Any win you can get in the ACC home or away is big. It’s a marathon.”

It’s also a merry-go-round: In the past five days, barely a blink of the eye in the scope of the sea­son, Pitts­burgh beat Louisville, Louisville beat North Carolina, North Carolina beat N.C. State and N.C. State beat Pitts­burgh. And North Carolina won at Pitts­burgh a week ago to fur­ther bal­ance the scales, the tran­si­tive prop­erty gone mad.

The fact of the North Carolina loss, if not the 21-point scale, was not en­tirely out of char­ac­ter for the in­scrutable Tar Heels, equal parts mer­cu­rial and mys­te­ri­ous, while Louisville al­ready has a win over Michi­gan State to its credit, al­beit at home.

“I’m at a lit­tle bit of a loss,” UNC coach Roy Wil­liams said, and he’s not the only one.

So that was perhaps eas­ier to

fathom than N.C. State drag­ging Eric Lock­ett out of the where-are-they-now file to save the team on a day it lost Wy­att Walker to ejec­tion for grab­bing and Markell John­son to a hard land­ing on his tail­bone in the first half, al­though John­son would re­turn to the bench if not the game and ap­peared to escape se­ri­ous in­jury.

Lock­ett, who didn’t play against either North Carolina or Auburn – his play­ing time in the in­ter­ven­ing three games was pro­por­tional to the de­gree of com­pe­ti­tion – hit back-to­back 3-point­ers dur­ing a cru­cial stretch of the sec- ond half, the sec­ond very much of the heat-check va­ri­ety. He had a chance to fire a third, but made the ex­tra pass to Dorn in the cor­ner for a 3-pointer that put N.C. State up five and forced a Pitts­burgh time­out.

The Wolf­pack didn’t need him against Auburn, but Lock­ett played Satur­day like he was try­ing to prove he could have helped Tues­day night.

“It just wasn’t my time,” said Lock­ett, a grad­u­ate trans­fer from Flor­ida In­ter­na­tional. “Coach knows what he’s do­ing. He’s done it be­fore. I just need to trust the project.”

That was the key stretch in a scrappy game, and N.C. State needed all of it against Pitts­burgh, since Jeff Capel has put the Big East back into the Pan­thers. What they lack in skill they make up in hus­tle and grit, and tem­pers flared more than once. Walker was ejected for grab­bing Xavier John­sons’s an­kle af­ter a tan­gle on the base­line and there were a few other trips to the mon­i­tor for fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion in a foul­filled game.

Given how cat­a­strophic los­ing to Pitts­burgh would have been, find­ing a way to win was an ut­ter ne­ces­sity for the Wolf­pack, which suc­cess­fully bounced back from Tues­day’s dis­ap­point­ment while running out of bod­ies. What­ever emo­tional toll Tues­day’s loss took on them, they han­dled it bet­ter than the Tar Heels han­dled pros­per­ity.

ETHAN HY­MAN ehy­[email protected]­sob­server.com

N.C. State’s Braxton Bev­erly (10) steals the ball from Pitts­burgh’s Xavier John­son dur­ing Satur­day’s game against Pitts­burgh in Raleigh. N.C. State won 86-80.

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