In a game that was closer than most expected, the Wolfpack pulled away late in the second half behind the scoring of Engin Atsur and Cameron Bennerman. The duo combined for 30 second-half points and gave NC State a boost with Wolfpack star Julius Hodge on the bench with foul trouble.
"The game wasn't going well and all the guys were trying to do our best," Atsur said. "It was my turn, I tried to step up, play good 'D,' and knock those shots down. That's what I did."
"Tonight I wasn't in a zone," Bennerman added. "I was just taking advantage. My shot was knocking down, and I was just shooting it. You'll know when I'm in a zone."
Columbia played inspired with the Madison Square Garden crowd behind them. The Lions hit 54.2% of their shots for the game including 10-of-18 from 3-point range. Seniors Jeremiah Boswell and Matt Preston led the way with 23 and 16 points respectively, but it wasn't enough to defeat a strong NC State squad.
"NC State's a terrific team," Columbia head coach Joe Jones said. "If you watch those guys on film, they are always in the right position defensively, they do a terrific job rebounding the ball, they move the ball extremely well, they got a great player in Julius Hodge who makes everyone else better, and Herb's a great coach. That's just not just words out there. That's a true statement."
The No. 17 Wolfpack played most of the game without starters Levi Watkins and Tony Bethel. Bethel played with flu-like symptoms, appearing noticably sick on the bench late in the second-half. Watkins played just four minutes with a quad strain. Both players are expected to play in the Holiday Festival championship game on Thursday night.
NC State's Julius Hodge played a great game despite the foul problems. He finished the night with 22 points and seven rebounds while hitting several big baskets early in the second half. Hodge, playing his first college game ever in his hometown, enjoyed the experience despite the foul troubles that limited his minutes.
"I didn't feel any frustration," Hodge said when asked about the foul problems. "But I couldn't help to think back to last March when I was out the game for a couple of minutes and the opposing team made the run. But I had confidence in our guys, and this is a new year and we showed that we've got a much better team than in previous years.
"I was very excited to come back home and play in the Garden for the first time. I grew up loving the Knicks, and I still do. I felt like I belonged here playing on this court."
Bennerman's 24 points led the Wolfpack while Hodge added 22, Atsur 17, Ilian Evtimov 11, and Jordan Collins finished with eight points.
The Wolfpack shot 49.1% on the night including 52.6% from behind the arc. Atsur and Bennerman hit 9-of-12 three-pointers and that proved to be the difference late in the game.
NC State (10-1) will play the St. John's/Canisius winner Thursday night at 9:00 PM while Columbia (6-3) plays the loser at 6:30 PM.