PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- From the day he was hired, new North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts promised his team would play an aggressive style that didn't back down from competing with anyone.
The Wolfpack needed all of five games to prove him right in a huge upset.
Freshman Braxton Beverly scored a season-high 20 points and sparked the decisive late run that helped N.C. State stun No. 2 Arizona 90-84 in Wednesday's first round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
"I feel like every game, every day, these guys have given me tremendous effort, and they're playing hard," Keatts said," and they deserved the win."
It's quite a reversal from a year ago, when Keatts was still the head coach at UNC Wilmington and N.C. State was stumbling its way through an underachieving season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That team suffered several blowout losses that raised questions about their effort, not to mention leaving Keatts' predecessor Mark Gottfried practically begging his team to play with more defensive intensity.
A few months later, the Wolfpack (5-0) pushed back every time the Final Four favorite Wildcats (3-1) made a run.
"We had plenty of offense," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "But our defense was really, really bad. Until we get that corrected, we're going to win a few then we're going to lose a few."
N.C. State has had several big wins against highly ranked instate neighbors Duke and North Carolina over the years, but the school said this was only the second regular-season win against a top-2 nonconference opponent in its history.
"We give each other confidence," said graduate transfer Allerik Freeman, who scored 24 points to lead the Wolfpack. "Our coaches give us confidence. And we believe in the way we play. So when the game starts, we play to win, from start to finish."
Allonzo Trier scored 24 of his 27 points after halftime for the Wildcats, who are still without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins due to a preseason foot injury. Freshman big man Deandre Ayton had 27 points and 14 rebounds, helping the Wildcats control the glass and score 16 second-chance points.
"I feel like all night we were just trying to stop them," said Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who scored 11 points. "We would score and make a run, and they would come back with a run or just score every time."
Arizona: The Wildcats made just 2 of 17 3-point attempts, but Miller said offense wasn't the overall problem - noting his team hasn't lost many when it puts up 84 points. This one will give him something to use as motivation going forward, particularly when it comes to the defense.
"The last couple of years, maybe our offense wasn't quite as far along as this year's, but our collective will defensively, our togetherness defensively more than made up for it," Miller said. "Right now it looks kind of like I'm the new coach trying to teach these guys a system because we were really out of sync."
N.C. State: Clearly it's a huge win for Keatts, who has installed an up-tempo style that uses a pressure defense despite having fewer numbers than he would prefer for his style. His team kept coming up with answers every time Arizona made a run and, remarkably, never trailed by more than two points all game.
"We're trying to build a culture here," Keatts said, adding: "These guys are making me look good five games into the season."
Beverly - who missed the first two games in an NCAA eligibility dispute tied to his attending summer courses at Ohio State before coming to N.C. State - led the way in the critical moments. He entered the game with just two points on 1-for-9 shooting through the first two games, but he made 5 of 7 shots with three 3-pointers Wednesday.
Beverly hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:19 left, part of a 13-1 run that put the Wolfpack up 86-76 with 1:48 left. He also hit six free throws and assisted on another basket during the spurt.
"I go into every game thinking the same thing: do what I can to help us come out with a win," Beverly said.
The Wolfpack got a boost with the gametime-decision return of senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu after missing the first four games with a sprained knee ligament. Abu, the team's top returning scorer and rebounder, finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
Arizona: The Wildcats will play SMU in Thursday's consolation round.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack will play Northern Iowa in Thursday's semifinals.
NC State stuffs No. 2 Arizona 90-84 in Battle 4 Atlantis