In win at Wake Forest, NC State proves it could have thrived without Terquavion Smith

For 12 minutes on Saturday, N.C. State got a glimpse of what life would have been like if Terquavion Smith actually had been seriously injured a week earlier. It wasn’t pretty.

And then, when Smith found himself in foul trouble again in the second half, it wasn’t pretty.

It was gorgeous.

Maybe there would have still been hope without him after all.

The Wolfpack may not be forced to try to win without Smith, but it certainly proved it could Saturday at Wake Forest, riding D.J. Burns’ 31 points to a 79-77 win that will go a long way toward polishing N.C. State’s NCAA tournament seeding profile, devastating Wake Forest’s tournament prospects and building the Wolfpack’s confidence that it’s far more than just its high-flying, quick-shooting leading scorer.

That was the grim prospect after Smith was stretchered off at North Carolina only a week ago, but if Saturday’s second half was any indication, it might not have been as grim as it appeared at the time. That said, Smith still made the game’s biggest bucket, pulling up for a floater with 38.6 seconds to go to put the Wolfpack up three, proving that while N.C. State still might be able to survive without him, the Wolfpack can thrive with him.

“’T’s a great teammate,” N.C. State guard Jarkel Joiner said. “He’s a sophomore, but he’s a leader. He’s a young leader on this team. He kept talking to us, kept talking to me at the guard position. He became a great teammate. And when he got back in, he made a big bucket for us and played great defense with four fouls. T has grown up a lot.”

After Smith picked up his third foul with 8½ minutes to go in the first half — fighting for a rebound he should have let go, somehow called a shooting foul — the Wolfpack realized just how lucky it was that Smith was playing at all, not that it really needed the reminder. Without Smith, N.C. State went 6-for-15 from the floor — missing eight straight at one point, outscored 20-12 — before a Joiner 3 at the first-half buzzer.

Things didn’t get much better with Smith back on the court to start the second half, but when he went out again with 9:18 to go after picking up his fourth on another needless touch foul, Burns went to work. Wake led by seven when Smith sat. By the time he came back in, with a little less than three minutes to play, the Wolfpack was up three after making 11 of 12 shots, six of those by Burns, who quickly made it seven. When Wake started doubling Burns, he started flinging the ball out for 3-pointers.

And then Smith, not to be forgotten, took matters into his own hands with the shot clock running down, slashing from the left wing to make it 74-77. Joiner’s free throws put it away.

“I didn’t think T had a great game, but sitting over there coming in, he made a big shot down the stretch to give us the lead,” Keatts said. “This team’s growing. This team’s getting better. I think we like each other. This was a great road win.”

Duke was experiencing similar emotions Saturday, even without Dariq Whitehead. The freshman didn’t play at Georgia Tech, but the fact that he’s day-to-day with a lower-leg injury and not out for the year with a torn Achilles after landing awkwardly at Virginia Tech on Monday is another bit of grace from the basketball gods.

Smith wasn’t happy about the third foul, but it certainly lacked the discretion of a player already saddled with two fouls. His immediate reaction on the bench recalled another of State’s Smiths, the power forward Tracy, who in December 2009 was suspended for a game for criticizing the officials after a loss in this same building. But Terquavion Smith was also the most enthusiastic teammate looking on Saturday during his extended stays on the sideline.

This was probably the game of most consequence between these teams here since then, with N.C. State looking to move up the NCAA seed list and Wake Forest looking to work its way onto it, two teams with realistic postseason ambitions after a decade-plus when one or the other — and sometimes both — was just looking to run out the string on the season.

This was also where yet another Smith, Dennis Jr., essentially quit on the Wolfpack in 2017, pulling himself from a loss and sealing his fate and Mark Gottfried’s as coach, although in retrospect it’s hardly the worst damage either of those two wreaked on the program. N.C State is just now out from under the spectre of those NCAA sanctions, which opened the door to bring in Joiner and Burns and the other transfers who have helped stabilize the program, not just a supporting cast but the co-stars this latest Smith so desperately needed so all of them could thrive.

“This is why I came here,” Burns said. “I asked every single coach who recruited me who was going to be on my team. Who were the teammates going to be I was going to war with? When I met these two guys” — Burns gestured to Smith and Joiner — “and a few other guys, I was sold.”

That was never more the case than Saturday’s second half, when Burns and Joiner and Casey Morsell and L.J. Thomas did the hard work themselves while Smith cheered them on from the bench before coming on to apply the finish himself.

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