The third year for the NC State men’s basketball team under head coach Kevin Keatts did not end the way anyone expected, as the college basketball season was cut short due to the spread of COVID-19.
The Wolfpack (20-12, 10-10 ACC) was on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament virtually the entire season as it had an up-and-down 2019-20 campaign, ending with a 10-10 conference record that was indicative of the nature of its season.
Nonetheless, the season was filled with plenty of things to cheer about, so let’s take a look at the best games of the 2019-20 season.
The Pack’s best road win of the season came against the defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers, a team that Keatts had yet to beat in his head coaching career. The win snapped an eight-game losing streak for NC State against the Wahoos and was the first ever win for the Pack at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. It served as a quad-one win and put the team right back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
NC State started the game out well, taking a 28-26 lead into halftime and, at one point, had an 11-point lead in the second half. That would be as big as the lead got, because after the Pack went up 42-31 with 13:51 left, the team went ice cold, going the next 10:13 without scoring a single point while Virginia went on a 15-0 run to take the lead 46-42 with 4:37 left. During Virginia’s run, redshirt junior forward D.J. Funderburk, who had a game-high 14 points, fouled out after picking up a questionable technical foul and another personal foul in a span of less than two minutes.
However, instead of crumbling with the game’s leading scorer out, the Wolfpack hit several clutch shots down the stretch, starting with back-to-back 3-pointers by sophomore forward Jericole Hellems and senior guard Markell Johnson to take the lead 48-47. Hellems then had a tip-in, and with 26 seconds left, redshirt senior guard C.J. Bryce hit a clutch two-point jump shot to put the Pack up 52-47.
In typical NC State fashion, the Wolfpack tried to give the game to Virginia late with a series of boneheaded fouls and missed free throws, but somehow held on to win 53-51, prompting a celebratory ice cream outing.
A year after losing a 79-75 heartbreaker to the Wisconsin Badgers up in Madison, Wisconsin, the Wolfpack got revenge back in PNC Arena in the 2019 ACC/Big Ten Challenge, winning 69-54.
Perhaps what was most memorable about the previous season’s game was Wisconsin’s Brad Davison drawing five charges, most of which State fans believed to be flops. Wolfpack fans did not forget about that, booing Davison when he was introduced in the starting lineup and every time he touched the ball in the game. That surely got in his head as he shot 1-5 from the field and scored just three points. To cap it off, the NC State crowd mockingly chanted “We want Brad!” late in the game while Davison sat on the bench.
The Pack dominated the game defensively, allowing the Badgers to shoot just 37.5% from the field. The game was also memorable because it featured the first of three half-court buzzer-beaters from Johnson, this one coming at the end of the first half to give the Pack the lead 32-30. The Pack then outscored Wisconsin 37-24 in the second half.
Hellems played the game of his life, scoring a career-high 23 points on 8-13 shooting, including 4-6 from beyond the arc. The win would end up counting as a quad-one win for the Wolfpack and bolstered the team’s NCAA Tournament resume.
Less than two weeks after beating the Pittsburgh Panthers 77-73 in Raleigh, NC State beat Pitt again, this time by a score 73-58 at the Greensboro Coliseum in the ACC Tournament. It was the Pack’s second win of the season in Greensboro.
Redshirt junior guard Devon Daniels poured in 23 points to lead the Wolfpack, and Bryce had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The game had its share of highlights, such as a fastbreak dunk by Johnson, an alley-oop flush by Daniels from Johnson, a pair of ferocious blocks from Funderburk and a late and-one layup from grad forward Danny Dixon, who played some of his best basketball in the final two games of the season.
It was one of the most complete performances of the year for the Wolfpack, who shot 47.5% from the field while allowing Pitt to shoot just 35%.
This would be the last game of the season for NC State, who would have played a rubber match against Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament the next day. Instead, both the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament were canceled, ending what might have been a promising month of March for the Wolfpack.
The best play of the season came in the Pack’s first win of the season in the Greensboro Coliseum, an 80-77 defeat of the UNCG Spartans.
After UNCG tied the score 77-77 with 2.1 seconds left, Hellems inbounded the ball to Johnson, who took one dribble and put up a heave from beyond the half-court line at the buzzer that hit nothing but net, giving the Wolfpack a thrilling victory. It was Johnson’s second half-court buzzer-beater of the season, and given his uncanny success beyond the half-court line, perhaps the final play went exactly the way the Pack drew it up.
The game was back-and-forth throughout. NC State took a double-digit lead several times and at one point had a lead as large as 13, but was never able to close the door on the Spartans. The Pack also outshot UNCG 56.6% to 43.1%, but perhaps what kept the Spartans in the game was the fact that they dominated the glass, winning the rebound battle 37-23.
Nonetheless, it made for an exciting finish. Johnson led the Wolfpack in scoring with 19 points, while Bryce added 17 and grad forward Pat Andree dropped 15 in one of his best performances of the season.
Many State fans made the drive up I-40 to Greensboro to watch the Pack play, giving the crowd about a 50-50 split between those in red and those in gold. When Johnson’s shot at the end dropped, the State fans were the ones cheering, filling the Coliseum with celebratory noise.
Not only was the 88-66 pounding of then-No. 6 Duke the best game of the year for the Wolfpack, it was one of the all-time best performances by an NC State basketball team.
The Pack couldn’t do anything wrong that night, shooting an outrageous 61.5% from beyond the arc, allowing Duke to shoot just 37.5% from the field and winning the rebound battle 51-43 in a game that NC State dominated from start to finish, never trailing at any point.
Daniels started out hot, scoring 14 of the Pack’s first 20 points. Johnson then heated up, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers, including a James Harden-esque step-back on Duke’s Joey Baker. With the Pack up 41-29 just before the end of the first half, Johnson got the inbounds pass after a Duke layup, took a few dribbles, and put up a half-court heave that banked in off the glass at the buzzer for his third half-court buzzer-beater of the season, putting NC State up 44-29. PNC Arena was going bonkers at that point.
The Blue Devils made a run in the second half to cut the lead to 11, but they had no answer for the Wolfpack. Johnson had a career-high 28 points, going right at Duke’s Tre Jones, who would end up being the ACC Player of the Year. Daniels also had a career night with 25 points, and Funderburk put up 21 to give the Pack its fifth win out of the last seven games against Duke in Raleigh.
To cap off the night, the NC State students stormed the court immediately following the game in celebration, and Keatts and the players joined fans at the Belltower later in the night.
This game would be the highlight of the 2019-20 NC State basketball season. Plus, it prompted one of the greatest newspaper covers in Technician history.