Closing The Season On A High Note
Following a four-game losing streak that included tough road losses to Duke and Clemson, NC State responded in the final two games of the regular season with wins over Miami and Virginia Tech. The wins put the Wolfpack into a 4th place tie with Virginia in conference play, their best mark in the ACC since 2005-2006. The two-game win streak also has State inching closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble with less than a week before the selection committee chooses the field of 68.
Given NC State's recent history since its last trip to the NCAA Tournament and its struggles in the final month of the regular season this year, Sunday's impressive performance against the Hokies was a refreshing change of pace. Thanks to Scott Wood's 19 points and another double-double by sophomore C.J. Leslie (they've become a regularity during the last couple of weeks), State was able to control the action throughout the evening against the injury-riddled Hokies.
It's been a question mark at times during the season, but on Sunday night, NC State's perimeter defense was very good, particularly against Dorenzo Hudson and Erick Green. Virginia Tech's two most potent options combined to score just 17 points and went 6-of-23 from the floor. The Hokies were also just 5-of-20 from downtown, well below their season average.
Despite forcing just seven turnovers on the night, NC State's perimeter defense was solid, keeping the Hokies out of the lane for the most part and not allowing shooters to get solid looks at the basket. Lorenzo Brown, CJ Williams and Scott Wood all recorded steals which led directly to easy baskets on the other end. A 2-3 zone also worked well in the second half and allowed the Pack to go on an 11-0 run that extended a four-point lead to 15.
C.J. Leslie Continues To Impress
The sophomore has been NC State's best player over the final month of the season, and he continued that impressive run Sunday with 18 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season. Leslie was efficient from the floor (7-of-9) and attacked the basket at will against Virginia Tech's front court. Despite having six of the Pack's 18 turnovers, Leslie's positive contributions greatly outweighed his mishaps.
Another positive of Leslie's game Sunday which became very important late in the first half and early in the second was his ability to be aggressive without getting into foul trouble. He tallied just two fouls on the night and was able to play a game-high 38 minutes. With DeShawn Painter and Richard Howell both strapped with foul trouble in the first half, Leslie's ability to stay on the floor -- something he, like Howell, has struggled with this season -- became even more crucial.
Although Leslie deserves plenty of credit for not playing himself into foul trouble Sunday night, Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter's inability to do that can't go unmentioned. Both players picked up three fouls in the first half, forcing NC State to at one point use what amounted to a four-guard lineup. Luckily for the Pack, the undersized and injury-riddled Hokies don't have a front court capable of making a team in foul trouble pay.
Painter finished with just four fouls, while Howell -- for the second straight game -- was able to play very effectively with three fouls in the second half and stay on the floor. He finished with seven points and 10 rebounds in just 18 minutes. Moving forward, all three of the Pack's main contributors in the front court must continue to work on being aggressive without fouling. NC State will need its full arsenal in the ACC Tournament and in any postseason event, whether it be the NCAA Tournament or NIT.
STAT OF THE GAME
NC State pulled down 40 rebounds Sunday night, 15 more than the Hokies. The Pack's dominance on the glass kept Virginia Tech from getting second chance opportunities and also prevented the dreaded offensive rebound and kick-out to a wide open 3-point shooter. Virginia Tech finished with just 11 second-chance points and 22 points in the paint, 15 of which came from one player -- Cadarian Raines.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
It would be easy for CJ Leslie to get the nod again, but Scott Wood was just too good Sunday. He led the team with 19 points, knocked down shots early in the game to get State rolling offensively and was better defensively than he has been all season. His effort on the defensive glass (four rebounds, five total) was also impressive and went well with two assists and a steal.
During his slump, which ended last Wednesday when he poured in 15 points in State's win over Miami, some had begun to question whether Alex Johnson should start to get some of Wood's minutes. His response -- 34 points and 10 rebounds in the last two games -- has silenced the doubters and made NC State a much more dangerous team heading into tournament play.
As the No. 5 seed, NC State will face No. 12 seed Boston College Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, which is being held this year in Atlanta's Philips Arena. The Wolfpack swept their two previous meetings with the Eagles, winning 76-62 Jan. 19 and 56-51 Feb. 1. A win against Boston College Thursday would setup a Friday showdown with Virginia, the No. 4 seed in the ACC. State fell to Virginia 61-60 in late January.