Luke DeCock

NC State’s magician pulls a win out of his hat

NC State’s Markell Johnson talks about pressure in facing Clemson

NC State's Markell Johnson talks to the media as teammate DJ Funderburk tries to distrct him after the victory over Clemson in the 2019 ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, March 13, 2019.
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NC State's Markell Johnson talks to the media as teammate DJ Funderburk tries to distrct him after the victory over Clemson in the 2019 ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

D.J. Funderburk would run out to the top of the key and try to set a ball screen for Markell Johnson, but on N.C. State’s last few possessions, it was really nothing more than a waste of time. Johnson would wave Funderburk away, back into the lane, and size up the situation from the perimeter.

At that point, not merely N.C. State’s chances but the Wolfpack’s entire season rested solely in Johnson’s hands. Down 16 at the half, N.C. State fought its way back to even terms in the final few minutes, a group effort on defense but largely a one-man effort on offense, and entirely so at the end.

It was Johnson’s game to win or lose, his season to extend. He was the only option.

“I’ve been playing with him since high school, so I’ve seen what he can do,” Funderburk said. “He’s a natural scorer. When he doesn’t want a screen, he’s got something up his sleeve. I trust him.”

Johnson had just enough up his sleeve, scoring the Wolfpack’s last eight points on a pair of pull-up 3-pointers and two critical free throws with 2.6 seconds left in a 59-58 win over Clemson, further bolstering N.C. State’s NCAA tournament hopes when a loss would potentially have been fatal.

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about his Wolfpack squad;s comeback for the win against Clemson in ACC Tournament action Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

It was a classic ACC tournament finish to this unexpected renewal of the former Les Robinson Invitational, the sixth time N.C. State has played in the 8-9 game, the second against Clemson.

Even as the Wolfpack staggered through a dismal first half, Johnson was the one player who appeared fully engaged, with 10 of his 23 before halftime. After the Wolfpack clawed its way back, Johnson took over entirely.

“He’s like a magician sometimes,” N.C. State forward Wyatt Walker said. “You never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes a 3, sometimes he’ll finish at the rim, sometimes he’ll dump it off for an easy basket. It’s hard sometimes not to sit back in awe of how good he is.”

Sometimes it’s not hard, because he’s not always this good. Johnson is always capable of winning games like this, but doesn’t always have it all together. When he does, when he’s shooting and slashing and freelancing, N.C. State is the kind of team that can record one of the biggest halftime comebacks in ACC tournament history or take Virginia to overtime.

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Johnson missed a key free throw in that game in Raleigh, a 66-65 loss to the Cavaliers. He didn’t flinch Wednesday.

“I just wanted to give back to my team for what I did against Virginia in the first game,” Johnson said, “and that was make the free throws.”

Even under the best of circumstances, N.C. State isn’t a team that runs a ton of intricate offensive sets. No one’s staying up at night cribbing plays from the Gonzaga film. Generally speaking, Kevin Keatts’ offensive philosophy hasn’t changed since his prep-school days: ask good players to make good plays while focusing on hustle and defense.

By Wednesday’s final minutes, State had abandoned the idea of running an offense entirely, setting a token ball screen here and there but generally asking Johnson to freelance one-on-five.

“I just let him play,” Keatts said. “At times, we were going to call for a ball screen, but I said, ‘No, let’s just let him play.’ And he made huge plays all day long. Even to the last play.”

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how breathtaking an escape this was. At halftime, about the only thing N.C. State had going for it was that the NCAA tournament was going to have to take 68 teams anyway, and as bad as N.C. State’s resume would have been with a loss, it was still going to be better than others.

Barring some combination of circumstance and coincidence as yet unidentified, the Wolfpack can finally feel good about Sunday no matter what happens against Virginia on Thursday.

It has Johnson to thank for that.

Watch a time-lapse as NC State's Markell Johnson is fouled by Clemson's Clyde Trapp with three seconds left in the game during the Wolfpack's victory in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.