Tokoto Disrupts Lacey

RALEIGH, N.C. – J.P. Tokoto never heard the PNC Arena boos as he exited the game with 4:14 to play after picking up his fourth foul. The Wolfpack crowd’s voiced displeasure in the junior forward’s defensive effort, however, provided confirmation of his performance.

“I thought J.P. was sensational defensively,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters following his team’s 81-79 win. “And you guys have heard me, I’m not one of those guys that falls in love with his defense all of the time because he gambles and does some things, but boy, he was good today.”

N.C. State guard Trevor Lacey’s lethal efficiency (21 points on 8-of-13 shooting) against Duke on Sunday – an 87-75 Wolfpack win – had elevated expectations for back-to-back home victories over ranked rivals. Tokoto watched portions of N.C. State’s victory, scouting Lacey and learning his tendencies.

Tokoto’s strategy was relatively straightforward. Disrupt Lacey and make him earn his buckets.

The preparation was evident and the plan was effective on Wednesday as Tokoto locked down Lacey early with his length, knocking balls away and limiting his touches as the Wolfpack’s leading scorer was held to two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half.

Lacey’s first two baskets came with Tokoto on the bench and his fifth and sixth points were the result of free throws following a block call against Isaiah Hicks in the paint. His first bucket over Tokoto didn’t come until the 10:57 mark of the second half.

“In the first half I was fortunate enough that he missed some good looks,” Tokoto said. “I believe I did make it tough on him the whole game, kind of tiring him out. Down the stretch, he made tough plays. He scored the ball. He attacked the rim, so he played a great game.”

Lacey finished with 19 points on 4-of-13 shooting (1-of-6 from 3), connecting on all 10 of his free throw attempts. Tokoto acknowledged that Lacey made his job easier early in the game by settling for jump shots. Once the Wolfpack junior started driving to the basket, he was able to get to the free throw line.

“J.P is a great defender,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “He’s athletic and his lateral quickness is out of this world. He did a good job of being on him and staying in front of him and contesting every shot. I feel like he did a pretty good job of that… Most of his points came from the three throw line.”

Lacey’s biggest shot – a 3-pointer out front over Tokoto’s outstretched arm – pulled N.C. State to within 76-74 with 16 seconds remaining.

“Lacey is a shot-maker, so you can’t get frustrated and flustered when he’s making tough step-back jump shots,” junior guard Marcus Paige said. “J.P. stuck with it the whole game. Making those shots tough helped down the stretch, hopefully getting to his legs.”

Despite a relatively benign stat line – seven points, five assists, four rebounds – Tokoto sparked a critical UNC run midway through the second half with his defense.

Trailing 54-52, N.C. State rebounded a Paige miss with 10:30 to play. Tokoto knocked the ball away from Abdul-Malik Abu, Paige collected it and found Justin Jackson in transition for an and-1 score, drawing the fourth foul on Ralston Turner (20 points). On the Wolfpack’s next possession, Tokoto stole the ball from Caleb Martin and added his own and-1 score, this time drawing BeeJay Anya’s fourth foul.

The Wolfpack went from having a chance to tie the game to trailing by eight points.

“They were huge,” N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried said of those possessions. “… That hole was hard to get out of once we had climbed and made it to the point we were.”

Those types of plays are why hostile crowds are eager to boo certain players when the chance arises. That opportunity presented itself when Tokoto was whistled for foul No. 4.

“I made it tough on their star player,” Tokoto said, “but I didn’t even notice they booed me. It’s okay.”

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