Wolfpack, Keatts show they belong in the top 25, whether or not they care about that

December 20, 2018
Markell Johnson (11) signaling NC State ball. NC State defeated Louisville, 76-69, at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 3, 2018. (Jerome Carpenter/WRAL Contributor)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State came into its matchup with No. 7 Auburn unranked in spite of a 9-1 record.

Sitting at 10-1 now and with a top-10 win under their belt, that will change come next Monday.

Do they care?

If they do, they aren’t saying.

“That’s above my pay grade,” senior Torin Dorn said in the locker room after the game. “I let the powers that be decide that.”

Athletes will use any sort of disrespect or slight, perceived or otherwise, to fuel them. Why not this? Why not the fact that NC State hadn’t cracked the top 25?

NC State head coach Kevin Keatts got his fourth win over a top-10 in his first 44 games as head coach of the Wolfpack, extending his record to 4-1 vs. top-10 foes since he’s been in Raleigh.

He insisted before the game that he didn’t care that his team wasn’t ranked, though.

“I mean, honestly we come out every game and want to win the game and play dominant,” Dorn said. “Any time you see a team with a number in front of their name, you want to play extremely hard and you want to win. So I think it’s our competitive nature.”

Sophomore guard Braxton Beverly, who carried NC State’s offense in the first half and had 14 of his 15 points when his teammates weren’t hitting, insisted it was true.

“Honestly, no. We actually didn’t even mention it,” Beverly said of the rankings. “We just were trying to take it one game at a time. If we go one game and win each game we play, then ultimately we’re going to show how good we are.”

Keatts kept with the theme in the postgame press conference, too. No, they didn’t care that they weren’t ranked, or that they probably would be.

He slipped just once, though, when asked about the national exposure his team would get for knocking off a top-10 team.

“Are you sure we’re going to get that national exposure?” he shot back, playfully but pointedly. “I don’t know that yet.”

The term “change the culture” gets thrown around a lot when a new coach comes to town. But in spite of a ton of roster turnover - something Keatts is used to from when he used to coach at Hargrave Military Academy - he’s the constant.

Cool, calm, collected, but fiery and passionate when he needs to be. He doesn’t mind advocating for his team, even if it doesn’t take the form of worrying about the top 25.

“We didn’t accidentally become 10-1. Our guys have worked extremely hard to get there. Hopefully, we’re going to continue to get better,” Keatts said. “But I’m excited. I said this before - if the (loss at) Wisconsin, if that was a learning lesson for us, that will be great. I’ll take that loss any time if we continue to get better from that point on.”

He just wants this team to do what it has done all season - worry about itself. It’s worked so far. The Wolfpack is 10-1, off to its best start since the 2005-06 season.

NC State finished 22-10 that year and Herb Sendek took the Arizona State job. They’re on their head coach since. This one, it would seem, might just stick.

His culture change is evident in how hard his team plays on defense, the pressure they put on opponents. Auburn turned it over 25 times in the game and though NC State had 22 of its own, it didn’t matter. And when one NC State player slowed down, another one stepped up.

At the end of the day, though, it’s players like junior point guard Markell Johnson - quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken and matter of fact, but lethal when his team needs it.

Johnson has shown in the past what he’s capable of, but he hasn’t been a consistent force like his teammate Dorn has. Dorn had an off night, though, and Beverly cooled off in the second half.

Auburn just kept cutting into the lead. And with 10:18 to go after Auburn tied it yet again, Johnson had had enough.

From the 9:47 mark until 8:32 remained, Johnson took over, scoring 10 points in 1:15. NC State stretched its lead out to 8 points, and it didn’t get closer than 5 the rest of the way.

NC State’s pressure defense helped force Auburn into 25 turnovers (16 in the first half), but in spite of the sloppiness by the Tigers, NC State could not quite pull away early on and led just 35-27 at the half. Auburn rallied in the second and tied it a few times, but would not take the lead.

NC State’s junior point guard Markell Johnson led the way by scoring 19 of his 27 points in the second half, including seven in row in just under a minute to extend a 1-point lead to an 8-point lead just like that in a stretch from the 9:11 mark to the 8:32 mark.

When he hit that final 3-pointer, he jumped up and down and smiled widely, screaming as he begged the crowd for more noise.

“I was just feeling it,” he said after the game. “My teammates gave me the confidence that I needed to go out there and play, and I was just feeling it.”

“I want Markell to stay aggressive,” Keatts said. “I think he has a chance to be one of the best guards in the country when he stays aggressive.”

His coaches implored him to take over.

And so he did.

For some really good players, it’s that simple.

“I was definitely looking at the clock and seeing the clock ticking and (Auburn) coming back,” Johnson said.

So he decided, no more of this. His team wasn’t going to lose. I’ve got this, he thought. And he did.

“He comes into the game ready to play,” Dorn said of Johnson. “He gets up for these kinds of matchups.

“When he’s aggressive offensively, there’s not too many people that can stop him.”

NC State may not care if they get ranked. But they do care that people know who they are, and what they’re about. They certainly do.

“It shows we’re not messing around,” Beverly said of the message sent. “We’ve got a lot of talent and we’re here to play.”

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