So much for the possibility of a Villanova-Arizona title game at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
NC State spoiled that potential top-five showdown Wednesday night by springing maybe the biggest upset of the season so far.
Al Freeman scored 24 points and Braxton Beverly added 20 as the Wolfpack snagged the first massive victory of the Kevin Keatts era, toppling second-ranked Arizona 90-84 in a quarterfinal matchup at the Battle 4 Atlantis. NC State advances to Thursday’s semifinals, where it will meet the winner of SMU and Northern Iowa.
That NC State could outplay an Arizona team with two potential All-American candidates is a surprise considering the mess Keatts inherited last spring. The Wolfpack lost their four leading scorers from an underachieving, dysfunctional team that lost 14 ACC games and finished tied for second-to-last in the league.
A rebuilding year appeared likely in Keatts’ debut season, but he has cobbled together a roster with the potential to exceed meager preseason expectations.
Torrin Dorn has blossomed into a go-to perimeter scorer, the frontcourt duo of Lennard Freeman and Omer Yurtseven is developing in a way they failed to do under Mark Gottfried and Freeman is showing scoring prowess seldom seen his first three seasons at Baylor. Throw in the outside shooting of the newly eligible Beverly, and NC State has some players who can be dangerous in Keatts’ trademark up-tempo, aggressive system.
That was certainly clear Wednesday as the Wolfpack led for most of the game and refused to fold when Arizona surged in front late in the second half. Yurtseven tied the game with a dunk off a sweet feed from Dorn with five minutes to play and Beverly gave NC State the lead back for good with a tie-breaking 3-pointer on the next possession, all part of an 11-1 run that sealed the victory for the Wolfpack.
Arizona can pin the loss on shoddy defense and anemic 2-for-17 shooting from 3-point range. DeAndre Ayton (27 points, 14 rebounds) dominated in the paint and Allonzo Trier was effective attacking the rim off the dribble, but the Wildcats got little from their bench and missed the presence of injured swingman Rawle Alkins on both ends of the floor.
While the consolation bracket is certainly not where Arizona expected to be playing, this loss is far from disastrous for a team hailed as Sean Miller’s most talented since he arrived in Tucson.
First, it’s still only November. This outcome should serve as a lesson for the Wildcats and should help Miller reach his team about the importance of playing sound defense.
Second, there’s still an opportunity to leave the Bahamas with a marquee win. Purdue was also a surprise quarterfinal loser on Wednesday, meaning the Atlantis fifth-place game could pit a pair of top 20 teams should both the Boilermakers and Wildcats win on Thursday.
Few would have believed as recently as Tuesday that those two teams would be in the loser’s bracket and NC State would be favored to reach the title game.
The Wolfpack secured a signature win on Wednesday. Now they have a couple more chances to build on that.