Pack Too Strong for Braves, 76-41

RALEIGH, N.C. -- On a night when perimeter shots weren't falling, the Pack turned to stifling defense and a strong interior game to whip visiting UNC-Pembroke, 76-41.

Rookie J.J. Hickson, making his first start, led the way with 11 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor. One game after placing five players in double-figures and threatening triple digits in an easy win over Barton College, State had just three players in double-figures in this one. Hickson was joined by Gavin Grant and Brandon Costner, who chipped in with 10 points apiece.

NC State struggled to find open looks in the first half against an aggressive modified matchup zone employed by the Braves. The Wolfpack misfired on 10 of 13 attempts from three-point range, but still managed to take a 10-point lead into intermission.

After a spirited halftime talk from coach Sidney Lowe, the Pack came out determined to improve its shot selection and display better ball movement. The team responded by shooting 61.5 percent (16-26) from the floor — including 11 of 14 from inside the arc. State cruised to a 37-point lead before settling on the final margin of 35 points.

Perhaps the key moment for State came when Trevor Ferguson drilled back-to-back three-pointers in the span of a minute and 23 seconds, helping to push the Pack lead from 19 to 27 halfway through the final stanza. Ferguson contributed nine points, a game-high eight rebounds and three assists, and got help off the bench from Tracy Smith, who notched nine points and six rebounds in just 15 minutes. Dennis Horner also put together a nice effort off the bench with nine points in 10 minutes, while starter Courtney Fells added eight points and five assists.

State was without steady starter Ben McCauley to start the game. Suffering from sickness he felt throughout the day, McCauley wasn't on the bench until he checked into the contest with 12:18 left in the opening half. He ended up with just four points, one rebound, an assist and a steal in 18 minutes. However, the Wolfpack bench corps picked up the slack for the ailing McCauley; State reserves contributed 31 points, just 10 less than UNC-Pembroke scored in total.

The Pack managed to shoot 56.5 percent (26-46) from the field for the contest, and dominated the boards, 41 to 24. NC State also committed just 11 turnovers vs. 19 assists, while forcing a dozen UNC-Pembroke turnovers and allowing only seven opponent assists. However, Lowe was unhappy with the team's effort and shot selection in the opening 20 minutes, and he couldn't have been happy with the squad's 7 of 18 showing from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes. The Wolfpack finished up just 16 of 30 on free throws, with Smith (1 for 7) struggling the most.

The matchup with the Braves represented the second straight good learning opportunity for the Pack. In the opener against Barton, State faced a smaller, quick team that gave the Pack fits on the boards. Against UNC-Pembroke, NC State got its first look at a feisty zone defense that it will likely see extensively throughout the rest of the campaign.

The Pack now has a week and a half to focus on improving its free-throw shooting, ball movement, perimeter effectiveness and rebounding. NC State will also be seeking a return to full health; though there was less-than-great, if not serious, news with McCauley's sickness and Grant icing his knee following the game, there was some good news prior to the game. Freshman point guard Javy Gonzalez took part in the shootaround before the opening tip, showing that he is getting closer to a return after breaking his thumb in the offseason. State hosts William & Mary in the regular-season opener on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m., with the Pack more than ready to get the hoops season kicked off officially.

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