Making A Run

Almost every team that makes a run in the NCAA Tournament has a 'light bulb' moment at some point in the year. For some squads, it comes with a key win in league play or a deep run in a conference tournament.

Almost every team that makes a run in the NCAA Tournament has a 'light bulb' moment at some point in the year. For some squads, it comes with a key win in league play or a deep run in a conference tournament.

For NC State, that moment may have come during a tough six-day stretch in mid-February that included losses to ACC regular-season heavyweights Duke, Florida State and North Carolina. It wasn't exactly ideal, or what the Wolfpack needed at the time, but it worked out, and the team hasn't been the same since.

Even in the aftermath of blowing a 20-point second-half lead to the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Alex Johnson said the team knew what the game could mean moving forward.

"We were up 20 and I don't think anybody on the team thought we could go up 20 on Duke," he said following Tuesday's practice. "That pretty much solidified the thought that we could play with anybody in the country."

That belief was strengthened six days later in a 12-point home loss to the Tar Heels.

"We felt like we played well enough to win that game," C.J. Williams said. "You never want to lose, but you can kind of take things away from a loss and turn it into something else. We knew we were right there all year, we just had to get over that hump."

From that point on, NC State has looked like a different team. The Wolfpack won a tough home game against Miami and a road contest against Virginia Tech to close out the regular season, and headed to the ACC Tournament in Atlanta confident about their chances.

Three days later, after wins over Boston College, Virginia and a 69-67 loss to North Carolina in the semifinals, NC State learned it had been selected as an 11 seed for the big dance. The late-season push had paid off.

More importantly, NC State (24-12) finally had the confidence it had been looking for all season. Considering that, maybe it's not a surprise that a team that was 'right there' all season has advanced into the Sweet 16 with wins over sixth-seeded San Diego State and third-seeded Georgetown.

"The pieces are there. When it all comes together we have some ingredients, and we've seen that the last few games," Mark Gottfried said Tuesday after practice. "Even after we lost four in a row, I still felt like we were good and we could still get better. That's why we need to just say hungry and keep improving."

Heading into Friday night's showdown with second-seeded Kansas (10:17 p.m., TBS), the Wolfpack will need to continue to improve on the defensive end, something that was noticeable during the last month of the season and in NC State's wins over Georgetown and San Diego State. The Wolfpack haven't given up 70 points in a game for nearly a month (Feb. 25 loss to Clemson), and the Hoyas and Aztecs combined to shoot just 39 percent (44 for 112) from the field and 33 percent (16 for 48) from 3-point land in NC State's first two tournament games.

On the offensive end, NC State has been more efficient late in the season and finished games, something it struggled mightily with during non-conference games in November and December. Sophomore C.J. Leslie has led the way, but C.J. Williams and Scott Wood came up big against the Hoyas and point guard Lorenzo Brown has become the late-game closer everyone thought he could be. In summary, the offense -- much like the defense -- is clicking at the right time for the Wolfpack.

"I think all it is really is who gets hot at the end of the year, and we're one of the teams that has gotten going," Scott Wood said Tuesday. "We're playing well."

Playing well, and playing with confidence. It's a dangerous combination during the NCAA Tournament, and it's one that has NC State feeling good about its chances against the Jayhawks Friday night.

"This is the best time for [confidence] to come," Johnson said. "This is the best basketball we've played, and coach thinks we can play better. We do too."


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