JOHNSON: A Statement of Growth

NC State played a near-perfect first half then gutted out a second half to earn a road victory over a talented Tennessee team.

NC State played a near-perfect first half then gutted out a second half to earn a road victory over a talented Tennessee team.

The cliché about how tough it is to win on the road exists because it's completely true. There is no greater home advantage in a sport than the one that exists in college basketball.

But a young NC State squad didn't seem to notice on Wednesday night, using a near-perfect first half to build a lead then holding on with clutch plays late in the game to down Tennessee on the road 65-58.

More than anything this win shows how far the Pack has come since just a few weeks ago – when it went on the road and got pushed around by a physical Cincinnati team in a loss.

Tennessee was just as physically imposing, but the Pack pushed right back this time. The young front court played perhaps its best game of the season.

With Jordan Vandenberg sidelined much of the game due to foul trouble, the freshmen went toe-to-toe with Tennessee's talented big men and came out on top. Kyle Washington and Beejay Anya combined for seven rebounds and seven blocks off the bench while Lennard Freeman continued his workhorse ways with nine boards. The Pack blocked a season-high 12 shots, which contributed to Tennessee shooting just 38 percent from inside the arc.

Outside of league play, the Pack hadn't beaten a major conference opponent on the road since Sidney Lowe's squad downed Marquette in 2009. The Pack had played just five such opponents since that win, with three of the five losses coming by single digits. Even when the Pack played well, they had trouble getting over the hump and coming away with a win.

But that wasn't the case on Wednesday night. The Pack came out aggressive offensively – attacking the rim and breaking down the Volunteer defense. Defensively the Pack conceded the long jumper and Tennessee seemed happy to take them – and miss them – for much of the first half.

The Pack blew Tennessee out of the water for 20 minutes, but being a road game, it certainly wasn't going to last.

The Pack was, in some ways, most impressive in the second half. When Tennessee rallied, locking down on defense and getting the Pack completely out of its offensive rhythm, it looked like it might be another case of choking away an opportunity late on the road. The Vols cut the lead down to five, but the Pack defense bowed up and kept things in check long enough for its offensive stars – T.J. Warren and Cat Barber – to sink a few back-breaking shots late in the game.

The Pack ended up making the game closer than it should have been my missing the front end of the 1-and-1 on three straight possessions, but by road game standards this was a blow-out. The Pack flew out of Knoxville with the non-conference road win in Mark Gottfried's short tenure.

It's impossible to say how important this win will be in three months, but it does help balance out the home court loss to North Carolina Central from the standpoint of the Pack's postseason resume. If the goal is the NCAA tournament, this was a step in the right direction on a long journey.

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