Greetings from snowy and wet Apex, NC. I would have published this a bit earlier, but I was one of the unfortunate ones to lose power while the snow/rain mix rolled through last night. Alas, better late than never 🙂 . I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe and warm. Please exercise proper caution if you have to be out and about today. If you have time for some snow day reading and can bear to stand my prose, I present to you a detailed look at NC State’s big win over the Cheats from Tuesday evening …
Well, that was fun!
Now that some time has passed and we’ve all had a chance to decompress and fall back down to earth along with the snowflakes, let’s take a more detailed look at NC State’s 58-46 win on Cheater Hill. The win is one of the best of the Mark Gottfried era, and it carries a special significance to a large contingent of State fans for myriad reasons. Winning against your rival, winning against your rival at their place, winning at your rival’s home for the first time in over a decade, and winning against your rival for the first time since their basketball program was truly brought into scandalous headlines are just a few of the reasons many State fans are overjoyed with Tuesday night’s result.
In the season’s first match-up with the Cheats – won by the bad guys 81-79 in Raleigh – the Pack fought hard and made a spirited, late rally only to fall just short. That said, it was unfortunately the Cheats’ game to lose throughout. They controlled the pace, the flow, the game. You couldn’t fault State’s effort – after all they outrebounded the Cheats 37-33, doubled them on offensive rebounds 18-9, and lastly, almost completed an improbable rally. Still, even with a fantastic effort level from the Pack, the Cheats were able to shoot 56% from the field, 5-8 from three, 16-23 from the line, and grab timely offensive rebounds – all of which culminated in 81 hard-to-beat points.
Marcus Paige – ever the State killer – would hit all 5 of the Cheats’ threes, going 5-5 from that distance and 6-9 overall en route to a 23 point night. More than that though, Paige was in complete control of the game – when he wasn’t hitting a dagger three he was setting up his teammates for easy scores either indirectly through ball movement and sets or directly so with assists. Paige would finish with 9 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals to go along with his 23 points. Paige’s game management would help his frontcourt teammates combine for 37 points – 15 from Kennedy Meeks, 10 from Brice Johnson, and 12 huge points off the bench from Isaiah Hicks. It should also be noted that J.P. Tokoto was able to bother Trevor Lacey defensively in the game. Lacey was not shut down by any stretch, but he was bothered. This fact was clearly a source of pride for Tokoto and the Cheats heading into Tuesday night’s game, but pride goeth before a fall … we’ll revisit this point later.
So what would change for the Pack in Game #2? Was it just a simple matter of ‘bottle up Paige and don’t let him get the ball no matter what’? Well, yes and no. Given State’s history of Paige torturing them, it was clear something needed to be done at least a little differently this time around. Enter Cat Barber. Barber has been one of the best on-ball defenders in the country since he arrived at State. On Tuesday night, Barber was one of the best overall defenders in the country. Barber did not let Paige get shots off or drive the ball when Paige was handling it; moreover, Barber actively denied Paige the ball once it left his hands. Barber face-guarded and denied Paige the ball in one of the more beautiful defensive efforts from a State player that I’ve ever seen.
All that said, Paige can still be a highly effective game manager even without the scoring. While it wasn’t one of his finer games, Paige was still an effective court presence in the Cheats’ largely defense-optional 92-90 overtime loss to Top 5 Duke a week ago. Would the same hold true against State on Tuesday night? Barber did his best ‘Grumpy Cat’ impersonation and simply said “No“.
Ok, well, the Cheats have other options aside from just Paige – right? Yes, they sure do. However with State limiting Paige’s role and ability to efficiently execute halfcourt offensive sets the Cheats were behind the proverbial 8-ball. What transpired was perimeter shots taken by Cheats players that State wanted to see shoot the ball, along with rushed, altered, or flat out blocked shots from the Cheats’ interior players by a tough-minded, bruising State interior defense anchored by Beejay Anya. Even when the Cheats were able to drive the ball in the halfcourt, they were often met by Anya’s ominous presence and either got swatted, turned the ball over, or a took a wild or poor shot. Anya finished with a game high 6 blocks – as many as the entire Cheats team. Perhaps more importantly, Anya controlled the paint without sending the Cheats to the free throw line.
Gottfried: “We have a term called KYP… know your personnel. You have to know who they are. Even in the first game, there were times we’d close out to a guy that’s not a great shooter, we’re flying at him and then he’s driving by us.”
“Our message in this game was to stay with the plan in guarding certain guys certain ways. We did that tonight as well as we’ve done anytime this year.”
All that defensive effort is great, but it doesn’t mean a lot if you’re not truly disciplined and able to finish the possession with a rebound (sans turnover). No problem. The Pack limited the Cheats to 11 offensive rebounds – a few of those even very late when the game was essentially over – and grabbed 28 defensive rebounds from 36 total missed Cheat shots.
The result? The Cheats shot 35% on 19-55 shooting, shot a measly 3-12 from three, and got to the line for 9 total attempts – hitting 5. Those figures total up to … wait for it … 46 points. 46 points! In a game! At their home! 46! Look at them, look at them and laugh!
The stat line backs up State’s stunningly efficient defensive performance: Paige took 8 total shots, hitting 3. He took only one attempt in the first half. Justin Jackson took 17 shots. To his credit, Jackson was able to hit 7 of those attempts – but State will almost certainly take that trade off if it means Paige not shooting and Paige without the ball. The aforementioned Isaiah Hicks that buried State with 12 bench points in the first contest? Two points on three attempts. Brice Johnson: 4 points on 6 FG attempts and 3 FT attempts. Kennedy Meeks did have 12 points on 5-10 FG’s (2-4 FT’s), but he was constantly harried by the front line of Anya, Freeman, Abu, and Washington.
What an effort … but you’ve also got to be able to score – at least a little – in order to win. State didn’t do a whole lot on offense – they too shot just 35% for the game – but the real key lies in what they didn’t do on offense. They didn’t turn the ball over a ton, not allowing the Cheats to score a ton of free and easy points. They didn’t take a high number of no offense, early shot clock attempts, which often lead to runouts and easy transition scores for the opponent (which the Cheats excel at). They didn’t lose the game on offense.
What State did do for perhaps the first time all season is completely manage and control the game on both ends of the floor. What a sweet time to do that, too. Along with being the best defender on the court, Cat Barber was also the best game manager – controlling the tempo while slashing through the Cheats D at times. Ralston Turner hit clutch 3’s – four of them on only eight attempts. Trevor Lacey hit clutch jumpers and free throws and helped control the game. The big guys combined for just 10 points, but they played relentless D and grabbed big boards. The bench combined for another 10 points – all of them very timely.
The Pack ran down the shot clock on a large number of offensive possessions – I’m unsure if that was the true intent on each and every possession. I’m of the mind that they would take good shots when clearly available. What I am sure of is the message of limiting the opponent’s possessions and runouts by taking a good shot each time down, or barring that taking a shot or drive attempt late in the possession. Any way you cut it, State was able to score 58 points – enough to win gloriously by 12. How sweet it is.
– Try not to laugh too hard at me, but a key sequence to me was the very opening of the game. We’ve all seen various past State teams get completely blitzed and overwhelmed at the tip of games on Cheater Hill – or at the very least the tone of which team would likely win the game was set that early. Not this time, not this team. For the first two minutes of this game, it looked like it could head down a familiar path: Cheats won the tip, hit a jumper. State wouldn’t score until the 17:52 mark, and in those two minutes suffered two missed shots, two blocked shots, and a turnover. What didn’t happen though is the Cheats getting out to a quick 6-0 or 8-0 lead and a collective ‘oh ****’ feeling setting in. Instead, State responded with the poise and composure it would display all night and then go about its ass-kicking business.
– Coming back from the under 4:00 minute media timeout of the first half it’s 24-16 State with 3:38 to play. The Pack has established control of the game, and set the tone for how the game will be played. Brice Johnson is on the line for two shots and hits both before being subbed out – making it 24-18. The Cheats wouldn’t score again in the half. Their five on the floor are Paige, Jackson, Tokoto, Hicks, and Joel James. Roy Williams gets angered with Jackson missing a rebound at the 2:31 mark and sends Britt to scorer’s table to sub-in. At the 1:56 mark, Williams has seen enough of the Cheats’ bad offense after a missed shot by James and sends Meeks and Johnson to the scorer’s table. Barber converts a jumper for State at the 1:22 mark, making the score 26-18. Williams has a timeout that he will lose at the half that he can use to sub in his three players and also give him a chance to unleash his fury on his team. Instead, they play on – Lacey hits a 3 for State and the Cheats don’t come close to scoring again. 29-18 Pack at the half.
– After extending their lead to 16 points at 36-20 early in the 2nd half, The Pack begins to stray from their game plan and take a series of rushed and poor shots – leading to runouts and scramble plays that are like candy to the Cheats. The result is a 12-0 Cheats run to cut the lead to 36-32 after three called State timeouts. Perhaps the most key sequence happens now. Coming out of the third timeout, State patiently runs their offense until Des Lee does what he does best – drive the ball. The result is a drawn foul and two free throw opportunities, which Lee will calmly sink coming back from a media timeout. 38-32 State. The Cheats will go on to cut the lead to 38-36 before Ralston Turner hits the shot of the game – a 3-pointer on a kick out from Anya. 41-36 State at the 10:47 mark. Two seniors – Lee and Turner – combine to make clutch plays when State needs them the most. The Cheats will not cut the lead lower than 4 points for the rest of the game.
– At the 9:21 mark of the 2nd half, it’s 43-38 State and Kennedy Meeks has secured the ball off of a State turnover but has to take a timeout to ensure the Cheats keep possession of the ball. During this timeout, Nate Britt is subbed in for Paige. Recognizing this sub, the Pack goes into a 2-3 zone – the first time they have been out of man D all night. On the ensuing Cheats possession, they turn the ball over. The Pack then get fortunate as they miss a shot and the Cheats turn the ball over yet again – this time an unforced error on a transition opportunity. Barber will hit a jumper to push the lead to 7, and Jackson will respond with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four, 45-41. Neither team will score again before the media timeout that comes at the 6:43 mark. Almost three minutes have come off of the game clock with Paige out of the game. The switch to the zone is effective. When Paige does come back, the teams will trade missed shots until Turner can nail a beautiful transition 3 off of an assist from Barber at the 5:10 mark. State is still in control of the game.
– At the 2:32 mark, Paige will hit his only 3-pointer of the game to make the score 50-46 Pack. Instead of dread setting in and thinking ‘here we go again’, State remained confident and possessed better body language than that of the Cheats. Freeman will convert 1 of 2 FT’s on State’s ensuing possession, and the Cheats will turn the ball over on each of their next two possessions. After the first of those turnovers – corralled by Freeman – Trevor Lacey will convert a three-point play on a beautiful pump fake and drive by. 54-46 Pack. The Cheats will then come down and throw the ball out of bounds at the 1:14 mark. Dagger. State will score the final 8 points of the game from the 2:32 mark en route to the 58-46 final. Pure, unadulterated bliss.
NC State had a better plan. Better adjustments. Better composure, poise, and confidence. Better coaching. Better execution. State was better in all phases.
The game itself was a fairly ugly affair … The Pack relished it and happily flung themselves into the mud in order to mix it up – the Cheats, not so much. The Cheats could never seemingly come to terms with what was transpiring on the court – that this was happening.
If you’ll recall, I mentioned earlier that ‘pride goeth before a fall’ with respect to Tokoto and the Cheats. State’s gameplan and execution was in the Cheats’ heads. You can probably state that was the case for most of the game, but there were some occurrences that stood out to me.
At the 11:32 mark of the 2nd half, the Cheats knock the ball out of bounds near halfcourt on a State possession. Tokoto is shown by the cameras wildly gesturing and loudly mouthing off. It’s unclear if Lacey did or said anything (didn’t look like it to me), but he looks on incredulously as the ref starts admonishing him as opposed to Tokoto. What is clear by this point is that State is under their collective skin. Lacey would wind up turning the ball over on that possession – throwing it out of bounds. Tokoto once again took the opportunity to crow about it and make gestures. The Cheats would score off of an offensive rebound. No matter. State would come down and respond with a Turner 3. Composure and poise.
Fast forward to the 8:16 mark and Barber nails a top-of-the-key jumper to once again extend State’s lead … the cameras pan to the Cheats bench where Paige is seen solemnly shaking his head. They can’t believe what’s happening. This is State’s game. It was always State’s game. The Pack won the confidence and psychological battle all night. They never gave in, always keeping confidence and belief … composure and poise.
State made the proper adjustments at the right times. The game management was sensational. I’ll posit that the use of three timeouts during the Cheats’ 12-0 run was absolutely the right move. Stem the tide, regain control … ‘If you execute the gameplan, you will win’.
NC State’s staff was better, their players were better, their team was better. Cheat that, frauds.
Did I miss something? Disagree? Please share your thoughts on this great win.