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Johnson’s half-court heave could pay off big in March

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Kevin Keatts said that he never thinks a player will hit a half-court shot. Then he remembered who was taking the shot and that changed the narrative.

It could also change N.C. State’s perception in March.

Markell Johnson once again hit a long shot to beat the buzzer, but this one had a little more meaning. Only 11 days after he drilled a long-range attempt to just before halftime to help N.C. State generate momentum en route to a 15-point win at home against Wisconsin, Johnson beat the game clock from half court to hand the Wolfpack an 80-77 victory Sunday over UNC Greensboro inside the Greensboro Coliseum.

With the win, N.C. State is now 8-2 on the season. Johnson finished with a team-high 19 points (8-of-14 shooting, 3-of-8 on 3-point attempts) and seven assists. The Wolfpack was a plus-22 in points during his 30 minutes of action.

“The weird thing is that I never think those shots go in,” Keatts said after the Pack escaped the Triad with an important win. “When I saw it midway through the air, I thought, ‘Man, this thing has a chance to go in,’ and it did. It’s crazy...He was feeling it at the time. He just made a big play. It’s a good play, it sealed the win, and I was excited that we got it.”

It is common for Johnson to take shots from near halfcourt, and not only in actual games. He does not put the ball in the net from 40-plus feet away often, but he has made them when it counted most.

Against UNCG, it was also a proper response from the Wolfpack’s point of view. The game was just tied two seconds earlier when Isaiah Miller scored a basket to level things up at 77 and set up the heroics on the game’s final play.

“Get it up before the time went out, that’s the only thing going through my mind,” Johnson said. “I tried to get a defensive stop on the other end, but [Miller] scored, so I was trying to get it back. I do shoot them every day after practice. When free-throw practice ends, I’ll run to half court and throw a shot up. I haven’t made it in practice since the Wisconsin game.”

Like most schools, N.C. State immediately flips its allegiance once the non-conference game ends. Now the win over UNCG becomes a helpful tool for the Wolfpack, and State will be the Spartans’ biggest fans as the campaign progresses.

The depth of the victory could grow in the next couple of months. The Wolfpack did not have enough wins against top-competition to merit a berth into last season’s NCAA Tournament.

“I thought it would be a great game for us overall,” Keatts said. “When you look at the end of the season, these guys are going to win a lot of games and compete to win their tournament championship. They have a chance to be an NCAA team which is great. The atmosphere, I thought, was great. Having an opportunity to come to Greensboro and play in the Greensboro Coliseum to play against a program that believes, I think it’s a good win overall. I think it’ll end up being a top-100 win for us.”

It will be a team effort if N.C. State is to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack had three players score in double-digits against the Spartans, including a vital 15 points from grad transfer Pat Andree. State shot 60% from the floor, made half of its 26 three-point attempts and all seven of its free throws.

“We have a balanced team,” Keatts said. “When you look at our team, you can pick up a stat sheet of any game, and any guy can lead us in scoring. We’ve been averaging four or five guys in double-digits. That’s what makes us unique. It’s not the team that I thought I was going to have at the beginning of the year where we’d have 10 or 11 guys we could put into the game, but all eight to nine guys that I have available to get in the game all play for each other. I think that’s important. As we continue to build our culture, we want guys who play for N.C. State, and I think we’re getting there.”

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