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Wolfpack still has a lot to gain in NIT

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There will not be “One Shining Moment” for N.C. State men’s basketball this season, but the Wolfpack still has games to play and aspires to cut down a net as a tournament winner in the coming weeks. 

The Wolfpack outlasted Hofstra, 84-78, inside Valvano Arena at Reynolds Coliseum in its NIT opener Tuesday. It was N.C. State’s first NIT game since 2010 and although it is not the tournament in which head coach Kevin Keatts wanted his team to be playing, he was thrilled with the victory and seriousness with which his team took the contest. 

“We’re excited to move on,” Keatts said after the win. “We’re playing for a championship and that’s what we want.”

N.C. State will next take on Harvard, which defeated Georgetown, 71-68, in its NIT opener Wednesday. The second-round matchup between the Wolfpack and the Crimson will be Sunday at 7:30 p.m at Reynolds. 

Keatts, who coached three seasons at UNC Wilmington, knew that any school good enough to win a regular-season title in the Colonial Athletic Association would be a handful. 

The game was played only a little more than 48 hours after the Pack learned that it did not earn a second straight NCAA Tournament at-large bid. 

“I knew coming in that any champion out of that league would be really good,” Keatts said. “They obviously pushed us to the limit. It’s a great program. We put so much emphasis on making the ‘Big Dance,’ so when you don’t make it, it’s a tough thing, especially when you’re talking about 19-, 20-, 21-year old guys. They gave me an honest, hard work day of practice.”

The Pack struggled behind the 3-point line, shooting only 26.1 percent (6 of 23) from long range. Hofstra only trailed by two with 46 seconds remaining, however, but that is when Markell Johnson carried his team through the finish line. 

Johnson scored 20 of his team-best 26 points in the second half, including five in the game’s final minute, as the junior eschewed 3-point tries in favor of drives to the basket. 

“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get the ball moving and get to the rack.”

The final two baskets by Johnson, which included an old fashioned three-point play with 19 seconds remaining to hand his team a five-point advantage, were not the result of savvy playcalling. 

“When you have a veteran point guard, sometimes as a coach the smartest thing you can do is get out of the way and let him make plays,” Keatts explained. “When it comes to March, it’s more about our players than our coaching staff. It’s more about making sure these guys feel good.”

Playing inside a packed arena with boisterous fans did feel good for the Wolfpack. The team is grateful and looks forward to its next challenge, even if it is not quite the biggest stage. 

“We have some of the best fans in the country, anytime we get to play in front of them it’s big for us, big for our team, big for the fans and the city of Raleigh,” Torin Dorn Jr. said after finishing with 19 points and nine rebounds to avert a season-ending loss. “It’s definitely fun to play in Reynolds. You never want your career or any season to end on a loss so that’s what we’re trying to do, go out on a high note. I’m feeling great now.”

WOMEN ALSO IN REYNOLDS

The Wolfpack figured it would be hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament but was not sure which women’s basketball teams would be joining it in Raleigh. Then N.C. State got an unexpected jump in the preparation for its first opponent. 

The tournament bracket was erroneously leaked on ESPNU hours before the women’s basketball selection show was scheduled to air. That meant N.C. State had to cancel a viewing party it had planned but the Pack received clarity sooner. 

N.C. State will host Maine on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner will take on the victor of the 11 a.m. matchup between Kentucky and Princeton. 

The Wolfpack is hosting at Reynolds for the second straight season. 

“We were in a meeting talking about recruiting and all of sudden one of our assistant coaches comes in and tells us they are announcing the brackets,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “I said, ‘The heck with those, find ours.’ 

“Pretty soon ours popped up. It’s pretty crazy but the good thing is we get a little head start.”

Hosting is something Moore takes great pride in. 

“Only 16 teams get to do it,” said the head coach in his sixth season at N.C. State. “We have got to have people come out. We sold out three of our last four home games. We need to sell out these to show the NCAA committee that we have a great fan base.” 

Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.

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