State Outlasts Wofford, 92-88

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ben McCauley scored 26 points and Engin Atsur added 24 as NC State defeated Wofford 92-88 in the season opener.

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    It may have been more excitement for a season opener than fans would have preferred, but after watching Engin Atsur calmly hit two free throws with 2.9 seconds left to put the Pack up for good 92-88, Pack fans had plenty to smile about in the end.

    It was an ideal ending to a wild game, as a hot-shooting Wofford was very close to pulling off the upset over NC State. Although State won by just four points, you didn't catch any Pack players or head coach Sidney Lowe complaining after the game.

    "Did I have fun tonight? I'm having it now," Lowe said with a smile while talking to reporters. "I'm having it now. It was no fun out there, but I'm having it now."

    "We won the game and we're happy about that," added junior guard Gavin Grant.

    Certainly few expected Wofford, 11-19, and 6-9 in the Southern Conference last year, to come out firing as well as they did, and the Terriers parlayed that hot shooting into confidence and aggression throughout the game.

    But yes, against the Wofford Terriers, with four minutes remaining the RBC Center was rocking as though it were mid-February. Thanks to an acrobatic driving layup by Grant, the Pack had just went up 76-74, its first lead since the 4:48 mark in the first half, and the scattered crowd was so loud that the place sounded like it was at capacity. However, with 3:15 remaining, the crowd was silenced after Wofford guard Eric Marshall buried an uncontested 3-pointer to put Wofford back ahead 85-83, answering a 3-pointer Pack power forward Brandon Costner had just knocked down.

    Then, on the ensuing possession Courtney Fells drove the baseline for a rim-rocking tomahawk dunk in traffic, pulling the Pack within one and sending the RBC faithful into a frenzy with 3:06 to go. The next big shot came with 42 seconds to go when Engin Atsur called a clear-out at the top of the key, and with the shot-clock winding down drove the lane to knock in a contorting layup and put the Pack up by one.

    "What we were doing was trying to put it in his hands," Lowe said of the Atsur score. "We had run a play where Ben McCauley had scored twice easy inside and we felt that they were going to make an adjustment, they're a good ballclub. We wanted to make an adjustment as well.

    "I just told Engin to hold it a little longer and see what you have because someone will be open on this play. He made it, he did it himself. He made a nice move and got to the basket."

    Trailing by one point, Wofford called a timeout to set up a play, and the State coaches, and players had an idea of who the Terriers were going to try and set up a play for.

    Shane Nichols had already knocked down five 3-pointers, and Lowe expected he would get the ball this time out. He gave Courtney Fells the assignment of trailing Nichols, and Fells responded by blocking his 3-point attempt.

    "He's so athletic," Lowe said of Fells. "There are probably only a few people maybe in the country that can make that block from where he started. We knew his man was going to get that shot. That's their go-to guy. The thing about it is he's never too deep to shoot it.

    "That's what I told Courtney. You trail him, don't shoot the gaps, don't go over the top, because he's going to fade and knock down that three. Courtney did a nice job of chasing and just made an unbelievable block."

    "During the timeout coach Lowe told us they were going to try and get #5 the ball," said Fells. "He just told me that I had the defensive assignment. I just wanted to follow him around all the screens and try to make him put it on the floor. Unfortunately he tried to shoot the shot. I was able to get my right hand on the ball."

    The blocked shot was rebounded by Costner, who was fouled on the play. His free throw plus Atsur's final two would lock the game up for NC State, much to the crowd's delight -- and relief.

    Through the duration of the game, NC State struggled to slow down Wofford. NC State found itself fighting its way back into the contest over and over, only to see Wofford swish of one of its many timely three-pointers and again pull away. At halftime, State was down 54-45, allowing 11 threes on 19 attempts, and being out rebounded 17-to-9. Despite running its own offense with precision and shooting 54.5% in the half, the open looks from deep continued to rain in from Wofford, helping them make a blistering 65.6% of its shots to start.

    In the second half, center Ben McCauley got involved on the boards, grabbing all six of his rebounds then to help NC State regain control of the glass. The Pack would out rebound Wofford 24-9 over the final 20 minutes.

    NC State also watched many of contested threes stop falling for Wofford, who would only make five of 16, and played more aggressive defense on the perimeter, also alllowing fewer open looks.

    "Coach told us in the second half to get up in them," said Fells. "Make them dribble before they try to shoot."

    Offensively, the Sidney Lowe edition of the Wolfpack showed impressive chemistry and patience. Four players had at least four assists, and the Pack shot 55% on the night. The Pack frequently looked to break in transition, and ran a variety of successful sets, including looking down low to McCauley often.

    McCauley led all scorers with 26 points, on 10-of-13 shooting. Engin Atsur shrugged off any ill effects of his sore Achilles tendon, and displayed an aggressiveness on offense not seen in his previous three years, looking for his shot early in possessions and taking and making contested jumpers. Atsur tallied 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-7 on three pointers, and added five assists.

    New coach Sidney Lowe's first victory was a lot more difficult than he would have liked, but he was pleased with his team's effort.

    "The main thing to take away is that we need to play aggressively and stay active," said Lowe. "When you become passive you don't do as well. It was a gutsy game, I'm proud of the way we hung in there and made plays when we had to."

    Next up for NC State is Delaware St. on Friday, November 17. The Hornets should be a stiffer mid-major test for the Wolfpack, after winning the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference regular season title last season and finishing 21-14 on the year, before losing out on an NCAA bid to Hampton in the conference championship game.

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