DJ Horne poured in 26 points to lead the Wolfpack to an 82-76 win over Georgia Tech Saturday at PNC Arena. The victory gave coach Kevin Keatts his 200th career win and lifted State to a 7-4 record in the ACC. By NET rating, this was the weakest team left on the Wolfpack’s schedule, making this a near must-win game for the home team.
After winning last time out with a four-guard lineup, Keatts again went to that group to start both halves. It was a risky play, as Tech averaged 6’7 with their starting lineup. But turnovers plagued the Yellow Jackets throughout the game and they did not make a concerted effort to get the ball inside to take advantage of size mismatches. It’s not something the Pack can count on going forward, though.
It was a game of many runs, with State enjoying an 11-point lead at one point in the opening 20 minutes. But they were unable to sustain the advantage and went into halftime trailing by a point at 36-35.
And they were lucky to be that close at the half, as State shot just 30% from the floor in the opening 20 minutes.
A three-point bucket at the 17:47 mark gave Tech a 44-38 lead but then State went to a bigger lineup and Horne delivered big plays on both ends to get the Pack back in front. He delivered back-to-back 3-point plays, the first an old fashioned one with a jumper and a free throw and the second a shot behind the arc on an assist from Michael O’Connell. The latter score tied the game at 44-44.
O’Connell rebounded a miss on the other end, brought the ball up and found Casey Morsell for a layup and a Pack lead, one they would hold for the rest of the game.
A Jayden Taylor dunk make it 62-48 at the 8:54 mark and it looked like the rout was on. But Tech refused to fold, made shots and took advantage of some sloppy play by the home team and was able to cut the deficit to five several times down the stretch and four points with just two seconds remaining.
But Mo Diarra leaked out after the made bucket and hit a layup to clinch the victory.
Tech ended up shooting 41.4% for the game, including 8-16 from behind the arc in the second half. But the Yellow Jackets were done in by turnovers, as State converted 12 miscues into 18 points, compared to just four points off turnovers for Tech. The visitors won the shooting and rebounding parts of the game but the points off turnover deficit was just too much to overcome.
It was the second straight game that Horne led the Pack in scoring. Inserting O’Connell into the starting lineup has removed a lot of the playmaking responsibilities for the two-guard and the results have been great. Horne shot 4-8 from behind the arc and hit 10 of his 11 free throws.
And O’Connell’s impact can’t be ignored. For a slow guy who can’t shoot, he finds ways to make a difference each game. His final line was 7 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals in 33 minutes. Taylor added 21 points while Morsell chimed in with 15.
Next up for State is a home game against Pitt on Wednesday. The Panthers at 4-2 are much better on the road than Tech and their 64 ranking makes this a much-more challenging game. But the Pack simply cannot lose any more home games if they want to keep inching up in the NET.