RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Richard Howell kept ripping down rebounds and tussling in the paint until he came through with the clutch plays that helped No. 16 North Carolina State regroup from its first loss of the season.
As for the rest of the game, well, coach Mark Gottfried had plenty of reason for frustration.
Howell scored 23 points, including the go-ahead basket with 3:06 left, to help the Wolfpack rally past UNC Asheville 82-80 on Friday night. But N.C. State trailed nearly the entire game and couldn’t shake free of the Bulldogs until the final minutes, turning what should have been a chance to bounce back into a flirtation with an ugly home loss.
“We’ve got to be better,” Gottfried said. “We’ve got to be better defensively. We’ve got to develop better chemistry amongst our team. We’ve got to develop a team spirit that is all about winning — period. Nothing else.
“If we do that, we’ve got a chance to be a good team. If we don’t, then we’re just another team out there playing.”
For most of Friday night, N.C. State (4-1) looked like the latter. The Wolfpack kept bumbling away possessions, couldn’t stop UNC Asheville’s Jeremy Atkinson and just looked a step slow en route to trailing by seven with 8 minutes left.
Howell’s big night helped reverse that, from his 15 rebounds to his two key free throws with 5 seconds left that helped secure the win.
“We’re satisfied with the win but we’re not satisfied with the type of win,” Howell said. “We felt like we should’ve come out and played with the same energy (we had) the last 6 minutes of the game. If we played like that, then I feel it wouldn’t have been a ballgame.”
Things will have to get better quickly. N.C. State travels to No. 4 Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.
N.C. State was coming off a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tipoff championship game Sunday. Its struggles continued against an aggressive and opportunistic bunch of Bulldogs (1-5) who wouldn’t go away.
While N.C. State shot 62 percent after halftime and 56 percent for the game, it committed 19 turnovers that UNC Asheville converted into 31 points. The Bulldogs scored the game’s first six points to build some confidence, trailed for just 22 seconds in the first half and kept the Wolfpack chasing them all night.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was expecting to blow them out by 40,” said senior Scott Wood, who had 14 points and a pair of late jumpers in the decisive surge. “That’s how I feel about every team I play. I mean, it was a close game. They played extremely well. But at the same time, I feel like we need to come out there and try to step on their throats early.”
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-4 Atkinson frustrated the Wolfpack the entire way by being quick enough to get his shot off the dribble or strong enough to muscle around in the paint. He finished with a career-high 28 points while the Wolfpack tried at least three different defenders on him during the game.
“I’ll take a two-point loss here in Raleigh against a ranked 16th team in the nation any day,” Atkinson said. “I told the team in the locker room that we have a long season ahead. If we play like this in the Big South (Conference), we will kill in the Big South and beat every team by 30.”
UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach, a former Wolfpack player, wasn’t quite as chipper afterward.
“We just let this one get away,” he said.
Howell put the Wolfpack ahead for good at 70-69 when he corralled a deflected pass and scored in the paint while drawing an intentional foul.
He hit one free throw, then Wood followed with a straightaway jumper on what amounted to a five-point possession that gave N.C. State a four-point lead. Two possessions later, Wood answered a 3-pointer by Trent Meyer with one of his own, losing Keith Hornsby around a screen on the right wing to make it 76-72 with 1:16 left.
UNC Asheville got as close as 80-78 on a three-point play from Hornsby (23 points) with 16.5 seconds left, but Howell made it a two-possession game with his free throws and the Bulldogs managed a meaningless putback just before the buzzer to end it.
Lorenzo Brown added 18 points while C.J. Leslie had 14 points and 11 rebounds for N.C. State, which improved to 18-0 all-time against UNC Asheville.