NC State's annual Heritage Game was another triumphant return to the historic scene of so many Wolfpack basketball accomplishments. The Pack played inspired and aggressive, and was able to push around a hungry and dangerous Liberty squad. Liberty, who won the Big South conference last year, came out strong early, but NC State steadily pulled away to put the game out of reach.
With the game tied 10-10 and 14 minutes to go in the first half, the Pack started to full-court press. Though the ball pressure did not yield a high number of turnovers (Liberty had 14 for the game), the increased pace jumpstarted the Wolfpack offense and opened the door for a variety of driving lay-ups and banking post-up scores by Hodge. The highlight came when Hodge caught the ball on the wing as the Flames caught up with the Wolfpack on the break, and Hodge crossed his man over, dribbled once between the legs around him toward the baseline, and took off for a two-handed dunk over two other Liberty defenders.
Coach Herb Sendek had nothing but praise for Hodge. "He was brilliant tonight. He really took over; dominated. All of our players benefit from Julius' playing."
Liberty had no defense for the Wolfpack inside and watched NC State outscore them 46-22 in the paint.
NC State punished the Flames on the boards in the decisive first half, outrebounding them 24-14 and totaling 21 second-chance points, compared to only five in the first half for Liberty. Six of Hodge's nine rebounds were on the offensive boards, and Hodge's strong hands and quick release afforded him several close range bank shots, as well as plenty of put-backs and three-point plays. Hodge made 10 of 15 shooting attempts. His struggles at the free throw line seemed to end as well, as he shot 7-8 in the game, compared to just 23-39 (59%) on the season.
Hodge came close to tallying his and NC State's second career triple-double, but the ball did not bounce his way. The crowd let Hodge know he had a chance, chanting "One More Rebound! One More Assist!" late in the second half. On one occasion, Hodge found Cedic Simmons under the basket, but Simmons was fouled before he could convert. At least two other times NC State players missed wide-open three pointers that would have given Hodge that tenth assist as well. Hodge even had his tenth rebound ripped away by freshman teammate Andrew Brackman. With five minutes remaining in the game, coach Herb Sendek gave Hodge his curtain call, to raucous approving cheers of the Reynolds faithful.
Brackman laughed about the stolen the rebound, "[Hodge] let me know about it. He wasn't mad at me, but he wasn't happy, either." Brackman played brilliantly, totaling 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting in 20 minutes. Nine of those points came in only five minutes on the court in the first half. All of the forward's points came in the paint as well, as he regularly outmuscled Liberty's big men for inside buckets and banged down low for six rebounds, four on the offensive end.
Despite the blowout victory, Reynolds was rockin' to the crowd's cheers throughout the game. It was a trip down memory lane for many fans, and an introduction to years past for NC State's freshmen.
Freshman forward Cedric Simmons was certainly impressed. "I played here twice in the Glaxo Invitational, but there was never this many people, and they didn't all know my name and yell it like this," said Simmons. "It felt like the crowd was right on top of us." Simmons played strong as well, finishing with nine points and two blocked shots in 13 minutes.
"We had a great crowd here, I had chill bumps from it," said Sendek. "This provided some tremendous experience for our young players. Our players responded to the energy of the crowd by being excited."
NC State could not contain last year's Big South freshman of the year, Larry Blair. The 6'1" guard earned 24 points on 9-17 shooting, and most of his baskets were of the acrobatic variety... Flames reserve guard Jeremy Monceaux, a redshirt sophomore, was a former recruiting target and was very close to receiving an offer from the Wolfpack. Monceaux, who averaged 44 points a game in high school before blowing out his knee before his senior year, saw five minutes of action, and knocked down one three-pointer... NC State center Jordan Collins scored seven of the Pack's first nine points and made two of four three pointers in the game, raising him to six of 10 on the season... NC State gave up only five turnovers on the day to tie with five other occasions to be the lowest total in school history.