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Johnson proving to be difference-maker for the Wolfpack

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If N.C. State’s two games against Wake Forest this season have proven anything, it is that Markell Johnson could be a difference-maker for the Wolfpack. 

Sans the junior point guard, N.C. State suffered an awful 71-67 loss at Wake Forest on Jan. 15, but with Johnson contributing 25 points, six rebounds and three assists, the Wolfpack trounced the Demon Deacons on Sunday evening at PNC Arena. 

Johnson looks like he could be returning to form when the Pack needs him the most.

“(Wake Forest) got us good the first game, at their house, and we just had to come back and split it,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t go 0-2 against them this year. I didn’t play the first game so I already had a chip on my shoulder. They have a good point guard over there in (Brandon) Childress, so I wanted to step up to the challenge.”

Johnson was assertive out of the locker room against Wake Forest, with five of his six 3-pointers coming in the first half. 

“Markell was good and he was locked in,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said. “I don’t want to take credit away from Wake Forest for their win at Wake Forest because Markell wasn’t there, because injuries are part of the game, but Markell was special tonight and that was the difference in the game.”

The Wolfpack has won four of its last five contests and Johnson, despite still having some moments of uneven play on the court, is averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 assists per game during that span. 

Do not expect Johnson to actively seek out shot attempts. Ultimately, he plans to do his scoring within the flow of the offense. 

“You just take it as it comes,” Johnson said. “I do not want to go out there and force anything. Whenever I feel comfortable shooting the ball, that is the shot I am going to take.”

N.C. State is now 20-8 on the campaign and 8-7 in ACC play as the team enters its final three-game stretch of the regular season, starting Saturday at No. 18 Florida State in Tallahassee.

“It feels good,” Johnson said of reaching the 20-win plateau. “We want to keep working., We don’t want to get too complacent but we do want to just keep playing with that chip on our shoulder.” 

The Pack returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 after a two-season sabbatical from postseason play. The objective now is to close out strong and ensure a return to “The Big Dance.” Johnson is a key component that will likely be leaned on heavily down the stretch. 

“He came in and did his thing and he stepped up and made a lot of big shots,” N.C. State senior wing Torin Dorn Jr. said of Johnson’s effort. “He had a career-high (in ACC play), so he played really well. I think anytime you can get 20 wins in an NCAA season, it’s definitely a feat. Hopefully, that is enough to get us in, but we still have a few more games to play for our resume to put ourselves in the best position come March. Every win is important down the stretch, so winning as many games as possible is really of the utmost importance to us.”

SWEET REVENGE FOR WOLFPACK

Kayla Jones scored 10 points of her 14 points in the fourth quarter in ninth-ranked N.C. State’s 74-69 win over North Carolina on Sunday at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill. Kiara Leslie tallied 21 points and 10 rebounds for Wolfpack in the victory. 

N.C. State avenged a loss to North Carolina at home earlier in the season. The Pack has now defeated the Heels in five of the last six contests, including three of the last four in Chapel Hill, and leads the all-time series 58-51.  

It also helped the Pack in its push for a double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament, along with the jockeying that continues for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

“I am proud of my team,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “This is our third game in six days. I would say (Jones) is probably my player of the game. With Kiara, it is not fair but with 21 and 10 we have come to expect that from her.”

Jones made all six of her free-throw attempts against the Tar Heels. She was 6 of 11 from the charity stripe on the season prior to the game. She had a special method to shrug off any nerves Sunday. 

“Kiara and I shoot (free throws) before every practice,” Jones said. “That is what I was thinking on the free throw line — that I was in there with Kiara by myself.”

The Wolfpack, 24-3 overall and 11-3 in the ACC, will next travel to face the third-ranked Louisville Cardinals Thursday at 7 p.m. 

BASEBALL REMAINS UNDEFEATED

The N.C. State baseball team spent some extra time in South Carolina but the Wolfpack got the job done. 

N.C. State improved to 7-0 on the campaign with a three-game sweep over the weekend, including two victories in extra innings culminated by a road win over Coastal Carolina on Sunday. 

Kent Klyman won both of the extra-inning contests that bookended the weekend as the Wolfpack also outlasted both Kent State on Friday and the Chanticleers in Conway, South Carolina, in 11 innings each. Klyman improved to 3-0 on the season with the two wins. 

It was slightly easier for the Wolfpack on Saturday. N.C. State blanked Michigan State, 5-0, with Reid Johnston hurling 4 2/3 scoreless innings to earn his first victory of the season. 

There will be little respite from the rigors of early season play as N.C. State’s competitive schedule will continue Wednesday when the Wolfpack makes the short trip to Buies Creek to take on defending Big South Conference champion Campbell. 

Right-hander Alec Barger will make his first career start for N.C. State against the Camels. 

“I have always played a good schedule as it is the only way I know how to grow,” N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent said. “It is hard to grow after a loss sometimes because everyone today wants to be rewarded. That’s what a lot of people are doing nowadays. There are playing a bad schedule and getting the wins. 

“I’ve just always come from the old school where you play the good schedule and it gets you more prepared for the postseason if you get there.”

The first pitch for Wednesday’s matchup between N.C. State and Campbell is scheduled for 5 p.m.

Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.

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