WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The road wins are adding up for North Carolina State. And that could play a big role in pushing the bubble-resting Wolfpack into the NCAA Tournament next month.
Allerik Freeman scored 24 points to help N.C. State beat Wake Forest 90-84 on Saturday, earning a fourth road win in Atlantic Coast Conference play to match its overall league win total for all of last season.
Consider it the latest sign of growth for the Wolfpack (18-9, 8-6) under first-year coach Kevin Keatts. There’s already marquee wins against the likes of Arizona, Duke and North Carolina. Now there’s four wins in the past five ACC road games, which seemed unlikely after N.C. State lost each of its first three ACC road games by at least 16 points.
“Our season could’ve went a different way probably if we didn’t win the game at Pittsburgh (72-68 on Jan. 24), but we found a way to win,” Keatts said. “Every practice, every situation, we’re trying to make a competitive situation.
“I took over a bunch that didn’t have a lot of success and so we wanted to make everything competitive. And they’re playing that way now.”
To Keatts’ point, it wasn’t a smooth landing for the Wolfpack. N.C. State led by 14 midway through the second half but squandered much of a double-digit lead in the final 3½ minutes before hitting enough free throws down the stretch to hold on.
That might not have happened a few weeks ago.
“We’re a team that has mental toughness,” said Omer Yurtseven, who had 21 points. “And that’s what it took tonight.”
The Demon Deacons (10-17, 3-12) twice got within five on Keyshawn Woods’ 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes, then closed to 86-82 on two free throws from Bryant Crawford when he was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 15.8 seconds left.
But Crawford missed the third, and Torin Dorn followed with two key free throws with 13.3 seconds left that helped keep the Wolfpack in control.
N.C. State shot 51 percent for the game, including 11 of 24 from 3-point range.
“If we let teams shoot like that, we can’t beat nobody,” said Woods, who added: “They were just making shots. We couldn’t get them to get out of rhythm enough.”
N.C. State: The Wolfpack arrived off a tough road win against fellow bubble team Syracuse, good for a fifth Quadrant 1 victory to offset a weak nonconference schedule when it comes to NCAA Tournament positioning. Now the trick is for N.C. State to keep winning and avoid any stumbles, though its trouble in closing this one out showed that won’t be easy.
“I think it we continue to win, then anything’s possible,” Keatts said. “We’ve put ourselves in a great situation.”
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons snapped a three-game skid with Wednesday’s win against Georgia Tech. But they couldn’t follow up, with the offense relying almost entirely on Crawford (career-high 29 points) and Doral Moore (career-high 23 points to go with 12 rebounds) while spending most of the day playing catch-up.
“I thought N.C. State’s pressure in the first half put us in a tough spot,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. “We didn’t handle it very well.”
N.C. State had lost five straight years in Winston-Salem, including last year’s 30-point loss on an ugly February afternoon that helped pave the way for coach Mark Gottfried’s end-of-season ouster and Keatts’ arrival.
This was the Wolfpack’s first win here since 2012, which was also N.C. State’s last regular-season sweep of the Demon Deacons before this year.
N.C. State: Boston College visits the Wolfpack on Tuesday.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons will visit Pittsburgh — now 0-14 in the ACC — on Wednesday.
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