PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas– North Carolina State new coach Kevin Keats’ made his first big game at his new school a moment to remember.
Five games into the season, the Wolfpack (5-0) pulled off a stunning 90-84 victory over second-ranked Arizona here last night in the quarterfinals of the Battle for Atlantis. This was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s biggest win of the young season to date, bigger than top-ranked Duke’s victory over Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Chicago, especially considering the fact the Pack was picked to finish 12th in the league by the media in the preseason poll.
“When I came here we wanted to try to change the culture, build a program,” said Keatts, a Rick Pitino disciple who was hired by State in March after three successful seasons at UNC-Wilmington. “This was a program win.”
And their unlikely hero was a player who didn’t even know whether he would be eligible this season.
Braxton Beverly, a 6-0 freshman point guard who came off the bench to score 20 points in 27 minutes, originally signed with Ohio State and actually took summer classes at the school with the intention to play for head coach Thad Matta. He was as shocked as anyone when Matta was fired in June. Beverly sought to enroll elsewhere, but the NCAA was intent on to enforcing its rule that Beverly, because of enrolling in classes in the summer, had effectively became a student and had to sit out a year
NC State and Beverly appealed the decision and hired a lawyer, Scott Tompsett, who had represented other universities and coached in NCAA disputes. There was a groundswell of support from NCAA fans as well as social media campaigns and carrying signed that urged the NCAA to “Free Braxton” for games. Finally after two missed games and two denied appeals, the NCAA came to its senses and declared him eligible.
The first two games here, I saw signs and posters, everybody yelling, ‘Free Braxton!,” he recalled. “Finally, I’m free. As that poster said, they finally let him go. It was a great feeling, playing for such a great fan base, to have that support, it’s amazing.”
It took Beverly two games to regain his shooting stroke. But Beverly came up huge against the Cats, shooting 5 for 7, making 3 of 5 threes and 7 of 9 free throws to go with two assists and two steals.
“I just tried to play my game,” he said.
No one knew State, which finished 15-17 last season, had this in them. But the Pack shot 49.1 percent and scored 50 points in the second half, constantly forcing tempo and attacking the basket with little or no resistance. They took the lead early, built it to 57-48 and then responded with a 7-0 run after Arizona rallied to take a 75-73 lead on dunk by Keanu Pinder with 5:08 to play. Beverly was right in the middle of the deciding spurt, making a three to give the Pack a 78-75 lead and then making a pair of clutch free throws to send State up five with 3:21 remaining. “Wherever they were picked to finish in the league, somebody forget to factor that in,” Miller said.
The Cats had no answers after that.
“We just couldn’t stop them defensively,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “In my nine plus years here, I can’t remember the times we scored 84 points and lost, But you can;t win when you give up 90 points.”
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona’s elite 7-0 freshman center, scored 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his return to his native Bahamas. The Cats owned the boards, out rebounding State, 39-31 and scoring 39 points in the paint. Preseason All America guard Allonzo Trier also scored 27 for Arizona But NC State had more balance with guard Allerik Freeman scoring 24 points and seven Pack players scoring at least eight apiece. The Pack had 17 assists on 27 field goals and made 28 of 35 free throws.
“When we walk into that locker room, we want to play every game as hard as we can and we want to win every game.” Freeman said.