After back-to-back losses on the road to major conference foes and a week of hitting the books, the Wolfpack took the court for its annual game at Reynolds Coliseum. After a shaky first five minutes the Pack founds its rhythm, blowing past USC Upstate on Saturday afternoon by a 79-60 score.
"These guys have really been buckling down on exams and its been some long days for them so we were a little concerned about that," Sidney Lowe said. "But we came out of it."
Freshman Ryan Harrow led the charge for the Pack, scoring a career-high 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go with five assists and no turnovers. The lightning-quick point guard showed off a variety of moves as he slashed into the lane and got to the basket with little problem.
"Did I have a particular favorite shot? All the ones that went in," Harrow said.
The Pack's freshman trio all finished in double figures with Harrow's 20 leading the way. Lorenzo Brown scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with six assists and five rebounds while CJ Leslie delivered another solid performance with 13 points and seven rebounds.
"We look for that growth," Lowe said. "They are freshman and they are going to take their lumps, and they've taken some, but to bounce back and play as well as they did today its great to see. It shows that they are staying with it – they are growing, they are learning."
Lowe said that Tracy Smith, who has missed three weeks due to a knee injury suffered in November, is slightly ahead of schedule. The senior center worked out on Friday and may be able to play as soon as Thursday's game, Lowe said.
"He looked good, felt good," Lowe said. "We were hoping by the Arizona game but now they are talking about maybe a little bit sooner. We would like for him to get some action before that game."
While one player should be returning soon, the Pack might have lost another big man against the Spartans. Jordan Vandenberg, who has played substantial minutes with Smith sidelined, came down awkwardly on his left ankle during the second half and had to be taken to the locker room. Lowe had no update on his status immediately following the game.
"We are going to find out here now, find out how he's doing." Lowe said.
The Pack struggled from the opening tip, looking rusty after a week of exams, even falling behind the Spartans in the first five minutes. The halfcourt offense struggled to find good shots all half, but the Pack managed to rally by getting out on the fast break.
The Pack shot 47 percent in the half and hit 2-of-4 from behind the arc while the Spartan hit on just 32 percent of its shots and had eight turnovers in the half. Those turnovers and some solid defensive rebounding by the Pack allowed them to get out in the open court, where the Pack scored 10 points in the first half as it built up a 35-22 lead.
Coming out from the locker room, the Pack quickly eliminated any hope the Spartan's had of getting back in the game. Leslie highlighted a 12-4 run to start the second half with a thunderous dunk that put the Pack up by 20 points with 16 minutes remaining. The Pack stayed comfortably ahead for the remainder of the game, but Lowe was still disappointed with the Pack's second-half effort defensively.
"We gave up 38 points in the second half," Lowe said. "I thought we relaxed a couple of times defensively on some guys. I just told our guys we have to play the same way every night, every minute we are on the floor. We can't relax – it has to become a habit, it has to become a mindset. Then when we play against the Wake Forest and Duke and Clemson and those teams then our habits will take over. But if we have bad habits against teams we feel we should beat then those bad habits are going to come out when you play your conference games."