With three ejections, six technical fouls, and the Wolfpack’s comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit, their win over Wake Forest on Tuesday night epitomized the chaos of ACC basketball.
Fresh off a narrow victory against Louisville, where the Wolfpack almost let a significant lead slip away, they struggled to find their rhythm and started slowly against the Demon Deacons. The referees compounded the challenge by not helping in the foul department, pushing the Wolfpack into a deficit as large as 12 in the first half.
Frustrations reached a boiling point when Coach Kevin Keatts, convinced of a missed call, lost his composure and went ballistic on the sidelines. This reaction led to his ejection just before halftime. The vivid scene of Keatts losing his cool, facemask flying off, and assistants restraining him heightened the drama.
Amidst the chaos and tension at halftime, it was evident that the team was mission-oriented on turning the tides and leaving PNC Arena with a victory. While their shooting did not improve, and the Wolfpack shot an eye-opening 0/8 from three-point land, their effort did not waver.
As the Wolfpack started their second-half run, DJ Horne led with another strong stat line, including 21 points. Fortunately, an unusual hero emerged— Ben Middlebrooks, adding 14 points and six rebounds in just 20 minutes of play. When the offense stagnated and shots couldn’t find the mark, Ben Middlebrooks, a contribution from the bench, became a crucial player for the Wolfpack.
The chaos persisted with just under a minute left as Middlebrooks, celebrating an acrobatic lay-up paired with a foul, bumped into Wake Forest guard Hunter Sallis and triggered an altercation. A headbutt between Sallis and Wolfpack forward Mohamed Diarra ensued, leading to both of their ejections.
Despite the less-than-ideal ejection, the emotion and passion from both Wolfpack players fired up PNC Arena and motivated their teammates. Reflecting on Middlebrooks’ scream and Diarra’s quick defense, Casey Morsell commented, “They are both quiet guys. Even though it was a technical and an ejection, that’s what we need, that grit, that toughness… it helped us win the game.”
This sentiment reflects a team vying for respect among their ACC counterparts. In a postgame presser, Keatts emphasized the tenacity and attitude they are playing with, stating, “The message that we want to send today to everybody is that we are going to fight… we are not going to get pushed around.”
With a locker room full of screaming and celebration, Wolfpack fans feel more hopeful than ever. Now, fully in the thick of the ACC schedule, the Wolfpack must continue to compile and build on their momentum and good play. To succeed, they must learn to win amid adversity, whether losing a player, a coach, or poor shooting— continuing to adjust and battle through challenges.
With more tough matchups, including Virginia and Miami on the horizon before the month’s end, let’s hope the Wolfpack continues to battle and show the ACC and the country why they deserve more respect than they are currently receiving.