This is the way an NCAA Tournament game should be played and contested.
Both teams wanting it, badly. Both teams playing hard, relentlessly. Every possession a battle..
N.C. State did not beat Creighton on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA South Region at Ball Arena. The sixth-seed Bluejays emerged with a hard-fought 72-63 victory, advancing to the second round to face Baylor, the No. 3 seed.
But the Pack (23-11), in its first NCAA game since 2018, kept pushing to the end. It overcame a nightmarish, jittery start, took the lead in the second half and played hard for 40 minutes.
Terquavion Smith, in what should be his last game for the Wolfpack, had 32 points and was the best player on the court. The sophomore guard also had the most jaw-dropping moment of the game, rising high, slamming the ball left-handed over Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner in the second half.
“I’m super proud of my team,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said. “When you look at where we were last year to where we are now, and how hard our guys worked, what a season we had with 23 wins. Guys played their butts off. We’re going to walk out of here with our head up.”
Creighton’s Kalkbrenner also got his points — 31 for the Bluejays (22-12). The junior center made 11 of his 14 shots from the field and eight of nine free throws in a very efficient performance by the first-team All-Big East selection,
“They kept going inside and we didn’t have an answer for it,” Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell said.
It looked bleak for the Wolfpack in the second half when Creighton built a 56-47 lead with seven minutes left in regulation on an alley-oop layup by Kalkbrenner. But Keatts used a timeout and the Pack responded, again.
Smith hit a 3-pointer from the key, Jack Clark did the same and it was 56-53. Soon, Smith had his big dunk to again make it a three-point game.
“The dunk was a big play but then we came down and couldn’t get stops,” Keatts said.
It was 62-59, Creighton, and the shot clock running down on the Bluejays when Baylor Scheierman knocked down a 3-pointer. The Bluejays were 3-for-20 on 3’s in the game, but that was a big one.
The Pack, after trailing 28-26 at half, used an early 11-2 run early in the second half to take a 37-30 lead — a 3-pointer by Casey Morsell pushing State in front for the first time in the game.
“We wanted to put game pressure on them and I think we did,” Keatts said. “Every time we made a run, they made a run and they made some plays down the stretch.”
And foul trouble by the Wolfpack’s big men quickly became a big problem. D.J. Burns picked up his third blocking out on a rebound — the ref’s whistle coming late and an angry Keatts nearly running onto the court.
A 3-pointer by Kalkbrenner, only the sixth of the season by the big guy, tied it up 37-37 five minutes into the second half and gave the Bluejays a lift. Burns picked up his fourth foul moments later.
The anticipated showdown between Kalkbrenner and Burns never came — it was all Kalkbrenner this game. Nor did either team crank up their 3-point shooting as some expected until the late 3s by Smith and Clark.
The Pack had a miserable start in the game, with Smith picking up two early fouls and no one able to hit a shot until Joiner scored on after a scoreless first four minutes.
“We made adjustments and were able to get back in it,” Morsell said. “We just have to be consistent for 40 minutes.”
Keatts decided he could not keep Smith on the bench against the Bluejays, who scored the first seven points of the game and never trailed in the first half as Kalkbrenner scored 11 points.
Call it a wise move by Keatts. Smith began to attack the basket, using the high screen to get to driving lanes. He also hit some pullup jumpers, making seven of his 15 shots in the first half to score 14.
With Smith going one-on-one a lot, and Joiner often doing the same, the Wolfpack did not have an assist in the opening half and finished with three in the game. The Pack shot 33% in the first half and 37.5% for the game, making just three of 14 from 3-point range.
This story was originally published March 17, 2023, 6:05 PM.