Wolfpack show they belong with ACC elite
RALEIGH, N.C. -- As Scott Wood approached the free-throw line with 28.8 seconds left and North Carolina State leading top-ranked Duke, Lorenzo Brown finally allowed himself to crack a smile.
It was the first real show of emotion from the Wolfpack point guard, and other than some chippiness by Wood earlier in the game and a flash or two by freshman Rodney Purvis, it was the first true sign of excitement and joy from NC State all afternoon.
And it made sense.
Suddenly darting through Brown's mind was the realization that the Wolfpack could beat the Blue Devils, that maybe, just maybe, Brown and his teammates are also that good.
Oh, and the growing swarm of students near the baseline.
"I saw the fans getting ready to rush the court, and I was looking and said, ‘Oh my God, it's about to get crazy in here,'" said Brown about the grin before the conclusion of NCSU's 84-76 victory before the frenzied home faithful. "And I just started to smile. I didn't want to smile, but I just had to let it go."
The fans haven't had many reasons to rush the court in Raleigh over the last 20 years. Once a program of national relevance that captured national titles in 1974 and 1983 and gave the ACC one of its greatest players of all-time (David Thompson), Wolfpack basketball hasn't registered on the radar for some time.
The program largely floundered after Jim Valvano stepped down in 1990, but NC State basketball is back, at least, in 2013, as the Wolfpack improved to 14-2 overall, and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1989.
Duke (15-1, 2-1 ACC) didn't have injured senior forward Ryan Kelly, which coach Mike Krzyzewski said hurt the Devils in their defensive transition as much as anything else on Saturday, but the Devils still gave the valiant effort expected of a top-ranked team determined to keep its perch. But the Devils met a match in the Wolfpack that was better on this day and may be better as a whole moving forward.
How many teams shoot above than 50 percent against Duke? NC State did, converting on 50.8 percent of its field goal attempts. What about 50 percent form beyond the arc? The Wolfpack made half of their 8 3-point attempts, including two catch-and-shoot pops from Wood that helped establish NC State's early offensive balance.
Lorenzo Brown ran NC State's offense as it was designed against the stingy Devils, and finished the afternoon with 12 points and 13 assists against four turnovers vs. a defense designed to keep playmakers from going off
NC State got 25 points, six rebounds and not one minute of bewilderment from junior forward C.J. Leslie. He was dialed in all day, never once wavering.
The Wolfpack outrebounded Duke 19-13 after the intermission, with 14 of those boards snared by senior forward Richard Howell, whom Krzyzewski called a "beast." Howell finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds, and his brute physicality, mature awareness and determination marked the overall mindset of the Wolfpack.
He simply couldn't be outdone.
"I told him after the game that was a grown man's game," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "He controlled the backboard and made his mind up he was going to get every rebound. We had a timeout where I challenged the rest of the guys, and I said, ‘Is anybody else going to get one?' And Richard said, ‘Don't worry about it, coach, I'll get ‘em all.'
"For the most part, that was his attitude and I thought that was a big, big factor for us."
It would be easy for some observers to view this as a one-shot deal moving forward. If recent history has anything to do with it, the Wolfpack will not capitalize on this victory and this was more fluke and Kelly being out than anything else.
But that's not the case.
This is a different NC State basketball team, which has a chance at winning more games than the 1983 national champs, which won 26.
The maturity level of the Wolfpack from when Gottfried took over the program 21 months ago to Saturday is like night and day -- this group has become rock solid.
"We needed to win regardless of who it was," said Howell. "We don't say just because they're Duke we needed to beat them. We needed to come out and get this W and start 2-0 in the ACC.
"In the past since I've been here we often played down to the competition and would lose some of those games. This year, I don't want it to come to that."
NC State blew a 20-point lead at Duke a year ago and wanted some payback. But more than that, the players talked about progress, about winning all games, and about moving forward, how this is "just a stepping stone," as Howell put it, "to bigger things."
That NC State can legitimately think about "bigger things" is a story unto itself, one that Duke, and the rest of the nation, learned about on Saturday.