DJ Horne hit a floater with just under 10 seconds remaining and NC State survived a last-second shot in the paint to emerge with a 78-77 win over Clemson Saturday night in Littlejohn Coliseum. It was the first Quad 1 win of the year for the Pack and the victory put them into a three-way tie with Pitt and Wake Forest at 8-6 in the ACC race for fourth, with whoever pulls down the spot getting the double-bye in the conference tournament. Currently, Pitt holds the tiebreaker.

Clemson defeated State three times last year and wins have been few and far between here lately for the Pack against Brad Brownell’s squad. Clemson is the most physical team in the ACC and that style has worked well against Kevin Keatts’ squads over the years.

The Tigers started a frontcourt consisting of two 6’10 players and another at 6’8. State opened the game with two bigs and played that way for the entire game, with Mo Diarra logging 34 minutes, DJ Burns adding 25 and Ben Middlebrooks finishing with 21 minutes. That’s two games in a row where Keatts has bucked his normal tendency to go small and the results have been excellent.

State had a hot-shooting night in the opening 20 minutes and extended to a 10-point lead near the end of the half. But Clemson hit two 3-point baskets late in first period and cut the lead to four at the half.

And then State went ice cold to open the second period after scoring the first bucket of the half and Clemson went on a 13-0 run to take an eight-point lead. Clemson kept State from getting any closer and then hit a layup to go up 12 points with 10:19 remaining in the game.

The second-half explosion by Clemson featured some awful play by Keatts favorite, Casey Morsell. In a span of about seven minutes, Morsell missed a free throw, committed two fouls (one on a 3-point attempt where the shooter hit all three shots from the line), gave up a 3-pointer and had two turnovers. Keatts finally took Morsell out and once that happened, the comeback began.

Diarra hit a 3-pointer and Jayden Taylor converted a layup off a nice feed from Burns. And then Horne took over.

At the 5:59 mark, Horne hit a layup off another good pass from Burns. Next time down the court he hit a jumper and then at the 4:18 mark he sank another jumper off a dish from Burns to make it a one-point game.

After Clemson hit two free throws to extend to a three-point lead, Horne converted from behind the arc to tie things at 71-71.

Burns fouled out with 3:16 remaining and the teams traded free throws, with who else – Horne hitting two to make it 73-73.

A bunch of sloppy play followed, with the Tigers taking the lead on a layup off a turnover. It looked like State was going to tie the game the same way, but Jayden Taylor missed the bunny and a Clemson jumper on the ensuing possession made it a four-point game with 1:07 remaining.

Other teams will slack off Michael O’Connell because he’s not a great shooter and they need to give Horne a lot of attention. O’Connell took advantage of this to drive the lane for a bucket to cut the deficit to two points.

Diarra followed with a steal and drew a questionable foul. Yet he hit just one of his two free throws, leaving State trailing by one. But Morsell tied up 6’10 P.J. Hall on the rebound and with the possession arrow in their favor, the Pack got the ball back with a chance to take the lead.

State’s possession was going nowhere, so Keatts used his final timeout. That’s when Horne came thru with his big bucket to put State in the lead for the first time since 18:34 of the second half.

But Clemson had time, got a layup attempt in the final seconds but thanks to strong contested defense at the rim, the shot did not go in. Diarra grabbed the rebound to clinch the win.

As expected, it was a physical game with both sides having legitimate complaints about not getting calls. Which made the ticky-tack foul for Burns’ fifth all the more frustrating. But State did not back down and Clemson, despite all of its size, held just a two-rebound advantage in the game.

Horne finished with 27 points, the fifth straight game he’s topped 20. He’s averaging 26.6 points per game in this stretch in the heart of conference play. Early in the year multiple players were taking turns being the team’s high scorer. But with O’Connell playing more minutes and relieving Horne from having to play so many minutes as a point guard, he’s been a dynamic offensive force. And a much-needed one, too.

Burns finished with 14 points and four assists, while Diarra had 11 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and three steals. And after going 2-2 on three-point shots against Wake last time out, he hit all three of his shots behind the arc against the Tigers. Before the last two games, Diarra had been just 5-22 from long distance.

Keatts has made the right call going with two bigs on the court. Now, can he make another right call and limit Morsell’s minutes going forward? Morsell deserves credit for coming up with the held ball at the end of the game. But there was a whole lot of ugly coming from him before that moment. He’s been thru the wars with Keatts over the past three seasons. But more times than not this season he’s been a liability on the floor. He played 33 minutes in this game. It would be nice to see that number cut down to around 25.

State returns home for its next two games, ones which they should be favored. First up is Syracuse on Tuesday, followed by Boston College on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.

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