In a game that featured a ton of turnovers and missed shots, NC State was able to pull away from Northern State down the stretch, mainly due to timely defense and a strong showing from Gavin Grant.
Grant, a junior who played point guard tonight for the Wolfpack, hit 8-of-11 shots and 10-of-13 free throws as he tallied 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. At 6-foot-7, he presents so many problems for the defense, and Northern State, a DII team out of South Dakota, had no answer for him.
Make no mistake about it, Northern State was game. After losing to Vanderbilt 98-94 just two days ago, NSU came out and jumped all over the Wolfpack, taking a 29-18 lead with 6:46 remaining in the first half.
Wolfpack head coach Sidney Lowe took a timeout after back-to-back turnovers and his team responded. Behind a stifling defense, State outscored NSU 21-0 for the remainder of the half, and leading the effort was sophomore guard Courtney Fells.
Fells, known for having a strong jumper, had an off night shooting, as he hit just 1-of-10 from the floor to total eight points, but he contributed in so many other areas. The Mississippi native tallied six boards, five assists, and a game-high six steals as his effort on the defensive end caught the attention of Grant and Lowe.
"[Courtney] was very aggressive on defense," Grant said. "He's got a 7'1 wingspan, and he's only 6'5. I think he was the one who sparked the run in the first half. He got some steals and kicked it ahead to Brian, and Brian made some shots.
"He can definitely play defense. He's by far the most athletic player on the team. I'm looking for him to have a great year."
"I thought Courtney Fells played very well," said Lowe. "He didn't shoot the ball well, but he defended, he got big steals, big rebounds... made some passes."
Another player who stepped up and played big minutes was former walkon Brian Neiman. A native of Raleigh, the junior, who was recently put on scholarship, played 31 minutes, knocking down 4-of-6 shots to finish with 13 points.
"Brian Neiman was huge for us, not just from an offensive standpoint where he made some stops, but also defensively," said Lowe.
"I'm sure I surprised some people, but I always knew I was capable of doing that," Neiman stated. "It's like riding a bike.. it was real easy getting back into it."
The Pack needed Neiman's play and the 19 points and six boards that sophomore center Ben McCauley contributed. McCauley, who like Fells played all 40 minutes, will be a major factor for State this season.
"We've got a young team and we're still kind of getting used to each other," he said. "I think we did pretty well."
State was playing without senior point guard Engin Atsur and freshman guards Trevor Ferguson. Atsur is day-to-day with an ankle injury, but he returned to practice earlier this week. Ferguson is healthy, but he won't be eligible to play until mid-December due to NCAA rules.
Both guards will add another dimension to this team, as the Wolfpack struggled at times with handling the basketball. The Pack tallied 20 turnovers, and Atsur's presence will allow Grant to move to the wing with Fells. Grant and Fells should give the Wolfpack two of the most athletic wing players in the conference.
State shot 50% for the game, and knocked down 22-of-27 free throws (81.5%). Northern State shot 44.8% from the field, but just 36.7% in the first half and 56.3% from the line.
The Wolfpack returns to the hardwood next Wednesday, as St. Aug's will make the short drive over to the RBC Center.
"I was actually pleased with the way we played for the first night out and really playing against a very good opponent," said Lowe. "We were able to tighten up the defense a little and get some stops.
"I was very proud of those guys."