It hasn’t always been the smoothest of rides for N.C. State guard Markell Johnson.
The junior guard has had good games and bad. He makes good plays and bad. He can look like the quickest, flashiest guard in the ACC in some games and be more the passenger in others.
At Miami on Thursday, in the Pack’s 87-82 victory in its ACC opener, Johnson was both. He barely played in the first half, sitting out 16 minutes after picking up two fouls and hitting a 3-pointer for his only points.
Then came the second half. Winning time.
“I thought he was tremendous,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said. “He made some big shots for us. I thought he played like a veteran guard in this league.”
Which is exactly what the 18th-ranked Wolfpack (13-1) needed from Johnson in a second half in which the Hurricanes built a 10-point lead with fewer than 10 minutes to play. Johnson would score 17 points in the half, hitting three of four from the 3-point line, and add four assists.
With State leading 77-76, he swept through the lane for a basket. Moments later, he did it again, then knocked down four free throws in the final minute to help seal it.
While Johnson was not always matched up against Miami’s Chris Lykes, the 5-foot-7 dynamo guard, the two saw enough of each other. In one second-half stretch, Johnson drained a 3-pointer from the key, Lykes did the same and Johnson did it again.
“He and Chris were going back and forth,” Keatts said.
Just like old times, Johnson said. “I’ve been playing against Chris since AAU,” he said.
By game’s end, Lykes would have 28 points and it was his 3-pointer with 9:53 left in regulation that pushed Miami in front 74-64. Braxton Beverly answered with a 3 for the Pack and Keatts then quickly signaled for a timeout. It was time for the Wolfpack to stop trading baskets and start making more defensive stops.
“Coach says, ‘We don’t lie down, we’re always willing to fight,’” Beverly said. “That’s what we did.”
After Lykes’ 3, the Canes were held without a field goal for 7:42 before Zach Johnson scored from the paint with 2:11 left. Miami, its depth badly thinned and hurt even more when big man Dewan Hernandez was ruled ineligible by the NCAA before the game, began to tire, missing shots, missing free throws.
“The last 10 minutes of the game we just locked in,” Johnson said. “The last 10 minutes was big. It was just big on defense.”
The Pack did it without guard Blake Harris, who Keatts called “our defensive stopper.” The sophomore sustained a hip-pointer in practice, Keatts said, and was unable to play.
But everybody did their part. Devon Daniels had 20 points and eight rebounds, and C.J. Bryce barely missed a double-double with 10 points and nine boards.
Wyatt Walker, an all-effort player at 6-9 and 240 pounds, had eight offensive boards and 11 rebounds in all, and Beverly finished with 11 points and six assists.
Daniels had a somewhat startling, if sobering realization during the game. “It was the first time we trailed at halftime all year,” the sophomore guard said.
The Pack’s only loss was at Wisconsin, 79-75 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game. Even then, the Wolfpack had the halftime lead and maintained it much of the game in Madison, Wis.
But this was different.
“It’s ACC time,” Keatts said. “It’s easy to tell now. It was a hard-fought game on the road.”
The Pack went to locker room staring at a 45-37 deficit after the Canes finished the half with a 17-2 run. More so, they faced a displeased coach.
“At halftime, coach just challenged us,” Daniels said. “He told us we weren’t fighting enough and we had to battle. I think it showed the character of our team the way we battled back at the end.”
The Wolfpack players munched on chicken and pasta after the game, all the while knowing there would be one more stop before the flight back to Raleigh.
Remember, Kevin Keatts is an ice cream guy.