State concluded the first half of its ACC schedule with a 6-4 conference record, thanks to winning two of three games since our last update. The two wins came versus two of the bottom teams in the conference in Ga. Tech and Notre Dame. The lone loss was versus North Carolina, one that saw star guard Terquavion Smith taken off the floor on a stretcher after a Flagrant 2 foul.

Tech has generally not been good the past few years. Yet, somehow, they’ve gotten the best of Kevin Keatts in his tenure in Raleigh. Keatts was just 1-4 against the Yellow Jackets coming into this year. But Smith and Jarkel Joiner made sure not to have the program lose to this team again, as they combined for 44 points in State’s 78-66 win in Atlanta.

The Pack’s relatively easy win came despite not having a particularly good shooting night from behind the arc. Inside was a different story, as State shot 63% (20-32) on two-point baskets. You’re not going to lose many games when the shots are falling in at that rate. The good shooting extended to free throws, too, as the Pack converted 17-20 (85%) from the line, compared to 8-19 for the home team.

That made State 5-3 in the conference as they took the ride over to Chapel Hill, to play a team that was not exactly firing on all cylinders. State out-scored Carolina from the field, 57-44, but simply could not overcome a mind-boggling deficit of 27 free throws. Carolina went 36-39 from the line, while State was awarded just 12 trips to the charity stripe. An edge of greater than three times in free-throw attempts is virtually unheard of between two evenly matched teams.

Credit the Tar Heels for making all of those free throws. It’s not an easy thing to shoot 92% from the line, especially with 39 attempts. But it’s beyond frustrating to feel like the league is favoring a certain team (or teams) with how fouls are called. In its next game, Carolina enjoyed a 23-3 edge in free-throw attempts. The 12-point advantage from the line was the difference once again, as Carolina eked out a 72-68 win over Syracuse.

A neutral observer might believe that the games show that Carolina has somehow mastered the ability to play games without fouling. Those of us who’ve seen this preferential treatment for decades are left to hope for more evenly called games by non-ACC refs in the NCAA tournament.

One more foul story before we move on.

D.J. Burns is 6’9, 275 pounds and plays a physical game. Roughly 99.5% of his shots come from inside the paint. In his last five games, Burns has taken 62 shots. Yet, somehow, he’s taken just four free throws in this span. How can someone this large, this physical, not be fouled more than three times while putting up 62 shots?!? It defies all logic.

Fortunately for the Pack, they got to follow-up the Carolina game with a home tilt against Notre Dame. State got even more good news when Smith was able to come back and play in this game. Smith was knocked to the ground with a blow to the head while he was in the air in the Carolina game. He got up and immediately went back down. Later, reports were that he suffered injuries to his neck and elbow.

Smith didn’t have a great night shooting from the floor, as he missed his first nine shots. That was in direct contrast to Notre Dame, which shot 57% from the floor to take a 3-point lead into halftime. But their shooting cooled off just enough for State to emerge with an 85-82 win, one that close because of a 3-pointer by the Irish at the end of the game that looked like it was after the buzzer but still counted.

Joiner was the star of the game, as he had 28 points and six rebounds. Included in his point production was going 11-13 from the line, with six of those coming at the end of the game to help ice the victory. Keatts used Joiner – his starting PG – as the shooter at the foul line when Notre Dame went to the zone. It was a smart play, as Joiner has an excellent mid-range game and was very effective with the ball at that spot, either shooting or dishing to the wing. It will be curious to see if Keatts uses that same strategy when they play Syracuse and their famous matchup 2-3 zone.

Smith had 17 points and six assists and Burns chimed in with 14 points.

While Notre Dame was shooting lights-out in the game, it shot itself in the foot with turnovers. For the game, the Irish had 15 turnovers, many of their own fault. Meanwhile, State turned the ball over just two times. The turnovers were a main reason why the Pack had 14 more shot attempts than the Irish. You can make up for poor shooting with that many more attempts.

Next up for State is a matchup with in-state rival Wake Forest, which is half a game better than the Pack with a 6-3 conference record. The Deacons are tied for fifth in the conference with the Pitt Panthers. Clemson is on top of the ACC with a 9-1 record yet few will be surprised if the Tigers don’t end the year in first place. They have five games remaining against teams in the top half of the conference, with three of those on the road, including one in Raleigh on 2/25.

The good news for State is that starting center Dusan Mahorcic has been seen working out in his recovery from patella surgery. It’s possible he might play against Wake Forest. Barring any setbacks, if not for the Wake game, he should return for the following tilt, February 1 against Florida State.

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