State Rallies Past Cal, 58-52

DALLAS, TX - Cameron Bennerman hit two huge shots down the stretch, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 32 seconds left, to lead the No. 10 seed NC State past No. 7 seed California, 58-52.

NC State entered the first round game on a four-game losing streak, playing without the balance and confidence that keyed its 21-5 start. California, the No. 7 seed in the Atlanta Regional, jumped out to an early 9-4 start behind its horse, super power forward Leon Powe.

The Wolfpack countered with its big man, Cedric Simmons, and after a thunderous dunk from Simmons and a 3-pointer from freshman Courtney Fells, NC State led 16-11, using a 12-2 run to seize control.

The two teams exchanged leads in the first half, and with the score tied at 25 the Golden Bears seized control just before halftime. Powe knocked down a mid-range jumper with 1:42 remaining, and senior center Rod Benson, playing for foul-prone starter DeVon Hardin, slammed home a dunk with 27 seconds left to give Cal a 29-25 halftime lead.

Powe tallied eight first-half points and six boards, while Benson, who entered the game averaging five points in limited action, added 10. The Bears shot 52.2% in the first half, while the Wolfpack connected on just 10-of-23 shots from the field. Leading NC State was Bennerman and Simmons, as the two scored six each.

The Wolfpack knew it had to turn up the defensive intensity to advance to the second round, and they did just that in the final 20 minutes.

Simmons quickly went to work in the second half, scoring four points and picking up Hardin's fourth foul in the process, sending Cal's best center to the bench. Point guard Tony Bethel added a 3-pointer for the Wolfpack, as they battled back to tie the score at 32.

The Golden Bears wouldn't give up the lead easily, answering NC State's spurt with a 6-0 run that included four points by guard Omar Wilkes. Cal, leading 38-32 with 14:20 remaining, seemed to have control, but the Wolfpack came right back with a run of its own.

Simmons knocked down a face up jumper that started a 12-3 NC State run, and leading the way was Bennerman and sophomore guard Gavin Grant. The duo combined for ten points in the spurt, and Bennerman's tough layup in traffic gave NC State a 44-41 lead with eight minutes left.

On Cal's ensuing possession, Bennerman deflected a pass to halfcourt that was retrieved by Theo Robertson. With the shotclock dwindling down, Robertson found Wilkes in the corner who heaved up an alley-oop 3-pointer that hit the bottom of the net to tie the score at 41. But, Bethel came right back for the Wolfpack and drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave NC State a 47-44 lead, and the Wolfpack would never trail again.

"I think that was a key play in today's game," Bethel said. "Them hitting a crazy shot like that and then us coming down. I got an open look and I was able to knock it down."

"I thought Tony Bethel did an extraordinary job all night long providing us leadership," said Wolfpack head coach Herb Sendek. "When you looked into his eyes, when you heard his voice, he provided that calm reassurance that a team needs in a tough game, on a stage like this.

"I'm not surprised he stepped up and made the shot he did. He just had a tremendous disposition tonight all the way around."

Cal managed to tie the score at 50 on two Powe free throws, but Bennerman's pull-up jumper gave the Wolfpack a 52-50 lead. Golden Bear guard Ayinde Ubaka answered right back with a controversial jumper that was initially ruled a 3-pointer. However, the officials conferred and said Ubaka's right foot was on the 3-point line, and the shot was ruled a two that left the score knotted up at 52 with 1:07 remaining.

After a Bennerman jumper was blocked out of bounds by Powe, the Wolfpack used a timeout to set up a play. The ball was eventually swung to Bennerman in the corner, and the senior guard used a pump-fake to get the defender out of position and drilled a 3-pointer over the out-stretched arms of Robertson to give the Wolfpack a 55-52 lead with just 32 seconds left. Plenty of time remained on the clock, but Ubaka came down and rushed a 3-pointer that missed the rim and was rebounded by Grant, who knocked down two free throws to seal the victory for the Wolfpack.

"We ran a couple of plays to try and get a good shot," Bennerman said. "With the shot clock running down, we swung it around and the guy ran out wreckless. I just pump-faked, drove, and pulled up for the 3. It was an open look."

"It's not complicated," said Sendek. "You need special players to step up and make plays, and Cameron has been that guy for us throughout the season. Tonight he was really special."

NC State shot a blistering 57.9% in the second half, knocking down 11-of-19 attempts to finish the game 21-of-42 (50%). The Wolfpack's defensive effort in the second half may have been the difference. Limiting Cal to 33.3% shooting and forcing eight second-half turnovers, NC State also did a great job of preventing Powe, one of the nation's top big men, from taking over the game as he finished with just 14 points and 12 rebounds on 5-of-13 shooting.

"It always seemed there were people in the lane waiting for me," he said after the game. "They wouldn't allow me to get the ball where I wanted and that made it tough."

Benson added 13 and Wilkes chipped in 10, but Ubaka registered just six points, eight below his season average.

Bennerman finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, including his huge jumpers down the stretch. Simmons added 12 points and six boards, and Grant, Bethel, and Evtimov added six points each.

The victory was an important one for Sendek. Under scrutiny all week, his players didn't let the negative attention distract them from the task at hand, and neither did Sendek. As always, the Wolfpack head coach praised his players following the victory, while his seniors praised him.

"I certainly couldn't be more prouder than our entire team. I thought our guys just showed tremendous character tonight, beating an excellent California team. They maintained their poise and I thought they played with a great deal of grit and determination.

"It's always good to be on the bus with these guys."

"It's not just this game," Bethel said. "He's been here the last five seasons and that statement, that column, whatever it was, was foolish and we paid no mind to it. We all love him. He's a big influence on our lives and what we do on the court. We just look at it as foolishness. It's nonsense, we don't pay it no mind."

"All of this is just a distraction from the media," Evtimov added. "We're not going to let that affect us. We're going to believe in what we do and at the end of the day that is what is going to make us successful."

As for the thoughts of Sendek leaving at the end of the season, Bennerman gave a short answer.

"It's not going to happen."

Next up for NC State is a matchup against No. 2 seed Texas on Sunday afternoon. The Wolfpack will be looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.

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