Wolfpack State Their Case
After falling short of resume building wins throughout the regular season, the Pack attempted to eliminate all doubt about their NCAA tournament status Friday against the Cavaliers. The win pushed State's overall record to 22-11 and 11-7 in league games, a mark that head coach Mark Gottfried said should put the Pack in the field of 68.
"I think we deserve to play in the NCAA tournament," he said. "This team pretty much from start to finish has played pretty well…I hope we've done what we've been asked to do."
The ultimate decision of whether or not the Pack has achieved a tournament-worthy resume won't be made until Sunday by the selection committee, but a win over a Virginia team solidly in the field can't hurt. A semifinal win over North Carolina -- a team many have projected as a No. 1 seed in the dance -- would seal a bid for the Pack.
Staying Efficient On Offense
In a season full of impressive offensive performances for the Pack, Saturday's effort against the defensive-minded Cavaliers may have been the best yet. Led by Lorenzo Brown, NC State ran its sets to perfection much of the afternoon, finishing 27 of 50 (54%) from the floor, the worst mark Virginia has given up all season. Leslie was incredibly smart with the basketball in the high post, passing the ball back to guards in order to re-establish position against Virginia's big men. The second-team All-ACC sophomore went 9 of 11 from the field on the day.
Brown was also on his game against Jontel Evans, one of the better on-ball defenders in the ACC, finishing with 15 points, 8 assists and four rebounds on a 4 of 5 shooting day. He was also the Pack's best free throw shooter, hitting five of his eight attempts. The key stretch came early in the game after the Cavaliers built a 9-3 lead within the first three minutes. The Pack ripped off a 14-0 run over the next six minutes. Five of the seven shots State hit in that span were either layups or dunks.
For the day, NC State finished with 18 assists and just 11 turnovers. When Virginia visited the RBC Center in January, the Pack finished with the same number of turnovers and just 12 assists.
Forcing Tough Shots
Virginia forward Mike Scott was able to produce for the Cavaliers, scoring 23 points and pulling down 10 rebounds, but for the most part, the Pack were able to make things tough on the first-team All-ACC selection. Scott took 23 shots and also turned the ball over four times, thanks in large part to physically defense by NC State's big men. Virginia point guard Jontel Evans also had a tough game, finishing with just nine points on 4 of 11 shooting with four assists and two turnovers.
As a team, NC State also did a good job of keeping the Cavaliers from getting good look from 3-point land. Aside from Joe Harris, who hit two of his five attempts from deep, Virginia was 0-7 from 3-point land. That defensive efficiency will continue to be important Saturday when the Pack faces a streaky but capable North Carolina back court.
NC State's bench -- which now features just two regularly used players -- wasn't flashy against the Cavaliers, but DeShawn Painter and Alex Johnson were efficient in 37 combined minutes and completely outplayed Virginia's two reserves. Painter finished with four points, three rebounded and an assist with no turnovers and also did a solid job defensively against both Mike Scott and Akil Mitchell. Alex Johnson made two big buckets -- including a 3-pointer -- during the Pack's best stretch of the first half. He also handed out three assists in 16 minutes.
Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins combined for two points in 13 minutes for the Cavaliers, who stuck with their starters for much of the afternoon. Scott, Mitchell, Evans and Sammy Zeglinski all played at least 37 minutes.
Free Throw Shooting
A poor 12 of 21 free throw shooting performance had a lot to do with NC State's 61-60 loss to Virginia in Raleigh Jan. 28. On Friday in Atlanta, those same problems almost cost the Pack a second game against the Cavaliers. State finished the back-and-forth contest 44.4 percent (8 of 18) from the charity stripe, tied for its second worst mark of the entire season.
It's understandable that players would be tired -- both mentally and physically -- in a setting like the ACC Tournament. It's even more understandable in a game against Virginia, who loves to slow the pace and slug it out. That said, NC State has to perform better from the free throw line. They are called 'free' throws for a reason. Despite his stellar performance all afternoon, Leslie went just 1 of 5 from the foul line. Richard Howell also struggled, missing both of his attempts late in the second half with the Pack clinging to a 63-60 lead. Regardless of where the Pack plays its postseason ball, the free throw shooting has to improve.
STAT OF THE GAME
It was discussed earlier, but NC State's 54 percent shooting performance can't be understated. Coming into Friday's game, the Cavaliers were holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting on the year, good for third best in the league behind Florida State and Carolina. That hot shooting also allowed the Pack to put up 67 points, almost 14 points more than what Virginia normally allows.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
C.J. Leslie's transformation in his second year in Raleigh has been something to behold, especially in the last month of the season. He's become State's best player and one of the most explosive players in the league. That hot streak continued Friday against Virginia, as Leslie recorded his fifth double-double (19 points, 14 rebounds) in State's last six games. In the last three weeks, the Holly Springs native has averaged 18.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Even Leslie's off-the-court demeanor has changed. Following Friday's win, Leslie credited Mark Gottfried for a big part of his turnaround, something he would not have done during his first season with the Pack.
"Coach has done an amazing job with me in keeping me in the game and telling me I can do it and sticking with me through all the tough times I had. I can't say I've done it on my own."
With its win over Virginia, NC State earned an ACC Tournament semifinal matchup against top-seeded and fourth-ranked North Carolina. The game is scheduled to tip at 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon. The Tar Heels were balanced Friday in an 85-69 victory over No. 8 seed Maryland. NC State lost both regular season games against North Carolina, falling 74-55 in Chapel Hill Jan. 26 and 86-74 in Raleigh Feb. 21.
A story to watch heading into day three of the tournament will be the health of UNC forward John Henson's wrist. Henson, an All-ACC first-team selection and defensive player of the year in the league, left Friday's game against Maryland after landing on his left wrist in the first half. He did not return.