Wolfpack find unlikely hero against Pitt

Pittsburgh North Carolina St Basketball-4

The North Carolina State bench reacts after North Carolina State's Eric Lockett (5) scores a three-pointer during Saturday's game against Pittsburgh.


Sports Writer

Saturday, January 12, 2019

RALEIGH — After N.C. State's eight-point loss on Tuesday night to North Carolina, where fifth-year graduate student Eric Lockett had logged his second Did Not Play—Coach's Decision of the season, Kevin Keatts got the type of text any second-year ACC coach trying to build a winning culture would want.

Lockett, a 6-foot-5 guard, wasn't off the radar. He was in the Wolfpack's practice facility, working on his game, read the message.

"He could have easily went back and went out that night and partied, not be happy with what had happened," Keatts said. "He didn't do that."

Whatever karmic justice Lockett aggregated Tuesday and throughout a season of patience manifested itself Saturday against Pittsburgh at PNC Arena, where he exploded over a two-minute stretch to help the Wolfpack take down the Panthers, 86-80, after falling behind by six at one point in the second half.

His final line on Saturday, after never losing his warmup clothes against the Tar Heels: 17 points (a season-high), seven rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes. He entered the game averaging just over five points a game.

"Down the stretch we had some great contributions from a lot of guys," Keatts said. "Nobody played bigger than the guy that didn't play last game, which was Eric Lockett."

To start the second half, the Wolfpack were without two starters; Wyatt Walker was ejected two minutes into the game for pulling Xavier Johnson's leg from under him, and Markell Johnson fell on his tailbone going for a block. Johnson stayed down for several minutes and never returned to the game, though he was on the bench for the second half.

So, in stepped Lockett, who, down two points with 6:29 left, hit a 3-pointer on the left wing.

Once N.C. State got a stop on the other end, he got the ball in the exact same position, and hit another 3-pointer.

Heat check?

"Something like that," he said, laughing.

Now up two points, Lockett got an offensive rebound on the next position, got fouled, and made both free throws for his seventh and eighth straight points.

Pitt answered with a basket, then Lockett, with the defense’s eyes now on him as he controlled the ball beyond the right wing, found Torin Dorn for an assist on a 3-pointer, finishing an 11-2 spurt that put the Wolfpack from down four to up five.

They'd never lose the lead again, because of a player who didn't lose his focus.

"Like I said last time when I didn't play (against Auburn), it was just wasn't my time," Lockett said. "Coach knows what he's doing. I just have to trust the process."

Lockett is college basketball's closest thing to a journeyman. N.C. State is his third team in a five-year career which started at George Mason after a prep career in Georgia. He spent the last two seasons at Florida International, where, last year, he scored 14.3 points per game but finished 14-18 overall.

All he wanted in his final season, he said, was a chance to affect winning.

To do so on a stage like Saturday's meant a lot to him.

"It's a relief knowing I can still go out there and do that, knowing I'm capable of doing that," said Lockett, who didn't bother hiding his joy during his postgame availability. "Last year, playing so much, to this year, waiting for my name to be called, it's difficult but at the same time I know I can play at this level and I'm always going to be ready."

In essence, Saturday felt like vindication.

"It's really been about going wherever the ball takes me, just trusting my process and wherever it takes me," Lockett said. "It's been about staying focused."