Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya spoke loudly as NC State pulled off an improbable last (tenth) second win over LSU in the second round. Against top-seeded Villanova on Saturday it was Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman who stepped up.
Abu and Freeman each had double-doubles against the Wildcats. Abu finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds (six offensive) while Freeman almost matched the freshman with 11 points (5-7 shooting) as hauled down 12 boards as well.
Throughout the season, NC State head coach Mark Gottfried has mixed and matched his four frontcourt players, sometimes searching for answers and other times riding the hot hands. Entering the matchup against the smaller Wildcats, Gottfried decided using his bigs instead of countering with a smaller lineup was the better approach.
“We felt like we had to go inside,” Gottfried said. “They’re going to play a small lineup. If we want to play a bigger lineup, which we did for 40 minutes with two post players in there, we wanted to be able to get an advantage somehow--whether it was rebounding, going inside or penetrating and pitching. I thought, specifically, Lennard and Malik were phenomenal. They were relentless.”
Freeman narrowed his two college choices coming out of high school to NC State and Villanova. He played liked he had an understanding of his competition and wanted to prove his ability to compete against the second-ranked Wildcats along with confirming his decision to attend school in Raleigh was the correct one.
Meanwhile, Abu is blossoming right before the nation’s eyes at the best possible time. He was aggressive, particularly on the offensive boards, and he matched his best rebounding effort of the season against a top-level opponent. Limited offensively, the freshman displays the effort that leads those who watch him to believe that he is willing to do the work necessary to bridge the gaps in the areas that need improvement.
Abu is not surprised that the four frontcourt players contributed to help NC State keep its season alive.
“It is something we have always had in us,” Abu said. “As a frontcourt player, you take on responsibility defensively and rebounding-wise. Whenever we can do things and have positive numbers it always benefits our team. It is just something we are accustomed to. It is a good sign.”
While he did not come off the bench and hit two critical baskets in the final minute on Saturday, Anya was confident that NC State’s size would be a means for the Wolfpack to impose its will.
“I felt as as though our size was going to bother them a lot offensively and defensively,” Anya said. “We went out there and tried to exploit the matchups.”
The guard play has carried the Wolfpack all season but in the second and third rounds, the interior play matched the level. The versatility of the four frontcourt players gives Gottfried options and allows for in-game management that can adjust to changing situations.
As NC State returns to the regionals semifinals for the third time since 1990, Gottfried would prefer not to ride hot hands and simply have each a top form.
“We need all four of them to play well, Gottfried said. “We need them all.”