Pack Finds The Formula In Crucial Win

Locking down its first ACC victory wasn't easy for NC State, with the Pack having to fend off numerous comebacks by the eight-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. However, the win was welcome medicine for a hurting Wolfpack squad searching to regain last season's form.

In the middle of coach Herb Sendek's ACC teleconference on Monday, there was a prolonged silence between questions. The pause was long enough for Sendek to wonder if he had been disconnected.

"I thought everybody left me," he said when questions resumed. "I was getting ready to hang up."

Forgive Sendek for thinking that even the media had turned its backs on him. A four-game losing skid had shaken faith in all quarters in the Pack's ability to compete in the league this year. However, a strong performance in knocking off eighth-ranked Georgia Tech squad on Sunday has seemed to remind everyone that the Wolfpack will still be a factor in conference play this season.

True to form, though, Sendek cautioned about attaching too much importance to the victory over the Yellow Jackets – just as it was premature to write off NC State during the losing streak.

"We're obviously very pleased to get a hard-fought win over an excellent Georgia Tech team," said Sendek. "I think our guys really pulled together and played with tremendous purpose.

"It was a good win … I don't know that it's any more or any less. It was a very important game for us; obviously, we've had a challenging stretch … It was a home game on the front of a series where we play four of our next five and six of our next eight on the road. So hopefully it will provide us with some momentum moving forward."

When you're in a slump, it can seem that you misfire on every crucial opportunity while your foe capitalizes on its chances at key moments of the contest. Coaches in all sports repeatedly lean on the maxim of "making plays," and sportswriters and fans hate to hear the cliché, but sometimes, wins and losses can be distilled to it. Sendek noted that it took players taking advantage at big times to hold off the Yellow Jackets and pull out a win that was like a collective sigh of relief for Wolfpack Nation.

"I just thought our guys had a real focused determination," said Sendek. "Guys made some plays. Ilian Evtimov hit a huge three to help thwart their comeback and we made free throws.

"Guys just stepped up and made some plays."

Of course, having a team moving toward better health doesn't hurt. As of Monday, senior Levi Watkins was still bedridden with the flu, and redshirt junior Tony Bethel's remains unchanged, keeping him out indefinitely.

With the Pack missing a few key players, Sendek has relied on rookies Andrew Brackman and Gavin Grant to speed up their learning curves. Brackman has been consistently good all year long, but Grant's emergence in recent games has been a welcome development.

"I think he just has improved in every way," said Sendek. "He really gives us another guy on the court who can not only create offense for himself, but his teammates. He's a big, strong perimeter player."

In addition, Evtimov has overcome a slow start to put together a solid stretch of play both offensively and defensively.

"He was terrific on both ends of the floor [vs. Tech]," Sendek said. "Not only did he make big free throws and hit the huge three, but I thought he did as good a job as anybody in a long time for us helping his teammates on defense."

Factor in Julius Hodge making strides in following the flow of the game instead of trying to dictate it, and State is showing signs that it could be returning to the form that took it to second place in the league last year and resulted in Hodge and Sendek taking Player and Coach of the Year honors, respectively.

"I was really pleased with the way [Hodge] approached the game and his mindset," Sendek said. "I just think, when he's in a groove like that, our team really benefits and he helps make the other guys better.

"I think his health is improving every day. He continues to get treatment, but I think we're over the worst part of his injuries. I thought he did a really good job of helping us win the game. He kind of did what he does best: a great utilityman where he did a little bit of everything for our basketball team. And maybe most notably, he really made clutch free throws for us."

Last year, the Pack was able to bury teams in the final minutes by drilling shot after shot from the charity stripe. With Hodge working his way out of a season-long slump from the free-throw line, NC State was able to do just that against Georgia Tech.

"We just really continued to work even harder on it than we usually do," said Sendek. "It was just a matter of him doing what he's always done. He's historically been a terrific free-throw shooter -- and it was great to see him hitting them, I'll tell you that."

It had to be a relief for Sendek and his staff as much as everyone else to see the Wolfpack finding a familiar formula for success against one of the ACC's finest teams. With a difficult road stretch looming, bottling that formula and keeping it close by will be crucial if NC State is to climb back up the league ladder.

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