Wolfpack’s Lorenzo Brown out in front

RALEIGH, NC — Saturday night wasn’t exactly a typical night for North Carolina State’s basketball team.

The Wolfpack made another statement about the order of things along Tobacco Road, firmly planting their relevance smack dab into the middle of the lane Duke and North Carolina have traveled for decades. In one particular area, however, the Wolfpack jumped out in front of the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and everyone else in the ACC.

Junior point guard Lorenzo Brown is now the front-runner for ACC Player of the Year. He had been trending that way going well back into December, and after Saturday night’s 20-point, 11-assist performance in a 91-83 romp over the visiting Tar Heels, Brown is now a full length ahead of anyone else.

“He was great again,” senior forward Richard Howell said about Brown. “But he’s been great all year. We know what he can do and we know every game he’s gonna do it.”

Brown is second on the Wolfpack (16-4, 5-2 ACC) in scoring at 13.2 points per game, leads the ACC with 7.2 assists and is averaging 4.4 rebounds per contest. In addition, the 6-foot-5 combo guard-turned playmaker swipes more than two steals per outing, so he’s getting it done on both ends of the court.

On Saturday, Brown put on a clinic in how to operate in the open court against a program most defined by running efficient and entertaining fast breaks. In the first half alone, N.C. State put 20 fast-break points on the board to the Tar Heels’ zero. For the game, NCSU registered 39 such points, and Brown’s DNA was all over the Pack’s output.

From wrap-around and behind-the-back passes to b-lines right to the rim, the Roswell, Ga, native put on a show. But he said the highlight reel stuff began on the defensive end, and keeping UNC from churning its wheels.

“It was very big to contain those guys on the fast-break point,” Brown said. “But we’re used to it because we run the same type of offense. We run it every day in practice.”

Brown’s defense on UNC freshman guard Marcus Paige was so thoroughly dominating that at one point in the second half, Carolina coach Roy Williams dug well into his bench and played seldom-used guard Luke Davis in place of Paige for a six-minute stretch.

At that point, Paige was 0-for-8 from the field with three turnovers. One came when he simply lost control of his dribble near mid-court and the ball bounced into the backcourt for a violation while Brown applying no physical pressure.

Brown’s effect also was in the form of perimeter shooting, where he drained both 3-point attempts, and the charity stripe, where he was 6-for-6. And demonstrating the importance of beating the Tar Heels and opening up a 28-point at one point in the second half, Brown’s even let loose about a half-dozen smiles during the game.

Given that his only facial expression in a victory over Duke two weeks ago came with 28 seconds remaining indicates how he must have felt inside over his own performance and for the Wolfpack finally knocking the Tar Heels from their perch.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve got a beat down,” Brown said, referring to having never beaten UNC. “I’m just proud of my guys. We work hard and it’s paying off.”

The Wolfpack failed to back up their win over Duke with a victory in their next game, falling by a point at Maryland. Now they hit the road again, visiting a quality Virginia club Tuesday night. The deliberate Cavaliers defend as well as anyone in the ACC and present a significant challenge to N.C. State.

The keep the fire of beating UNC stoked, the Wolfpack must meet the challenge.

“Staying focused,” Brown said is the key to beating UVa. “We have to do that. We go to Virginia, and they are a good shooting team. We have to stop them from shooting the 3.”

With Brown doing his thing, N.C. State’s chances are pretty good to beat Virginia and anyone else the Wolfpack face.