There were all sorts of questions regarding how the Wolfpack would respond after last Sunday's loss to New Orleans. And while the Pack's performance in Thursday's 72-63 win over Rider didn't quite answer all of those questions, it probably answered the biggest one: the Wolfpack still knows how to get the job done.
Courtney Fells led his teammates with 18 points and helped spur a 22-7 second half run that helped the Pack overcome a determined Rider team on its way to a first round victory in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. J.J. Hickson came off the bench to contribute 13 points and six rebounds and Brandon Costner added 11 points and eight boards, as the Pack fought out of a rough hangover to win the game. Gavin Grant also chipped in with 10 points and 6 rebounds but it was an overall team effort that got the job done. And what did Coach Sidney Lowe learn from this team today?
"That there's a lot of pride here, there's a lot of character here, and that they want to win – they don't like losing," he said. "That's what I wanted to see – how we would come back today. We came out with great energy, and we played with great energy."
The Wolfpack endured another slow start in the first half, hitting just 11 of 26 from the field and 0 of 7 from the three-point line. Rider, on the other hand, only shot 12 of 33 from the field, but a blistering 6 of 10 from the three point stripe. The Pack seemed to be a step behind the Broncs and trailed for most of the first half, trading baskets and turnovers, but never really getting into sync. A three-pointer by Rider's Lamar Robinson at 15:44 in the first half pushed the Broncs' lead to 26-17. Despite some scrappy plays by Grant and company towards the end of the half, Rider held a slim lead at the break, 31-28.
The State defense also had trouble checking Rider big man Jason Thompson, who finished the game with 24 points and 15 rebounds, but when State needed a boost to take control in the second half, it came courtesy of some timely contributions from a couple of unlikely sources.
Point guard Farnold Degand hit a three-pointer from the top of the key seven minutes into the second half to help the Pack take a 44-43 lead. Then, Ben McCauley (starting in place of J.J. Hickson, who broke some team rules) grabbed a steal and raced down the court to convert a three-point play to put the Pack ahead 47-43 and they didn't look back. Javi Gonzalez also made some gritty plays at times in relief of Degand, with a couple steals and some timely baskets.
It also helped that the Wolfpack made its first few three pointers of the second half. Costner hit first at 1:24 of the second half to pull within 33-31, and Fells hit another seconds later to pull the team within 35-34.
"It was huge to come out and hit a couple and get the confidence going again, and get us back into it," said Lowe.
Bit by bit, the Pack started to pull away thanks to some aggressive play on the offensive end and some solid rebounding on the defensive end. A three-pointer by Jason Thompson pulled Rider within 65-60 with 1:49 remaining, but the Broncs would get no closer.
The Pack finished strong, hitting 5 of 6 of their three point attempts in the second half, en route to shooting 49% from the field for the game. They also shot a reasonable 70% from the foul line. Those are positive signs for a team that must put their struggles behind them and focus on a tough South Carolina team in the semifinals tomorrow.
And as far as team chemistry issues?
"I think we put those little things behind us and focus on the big picture – and that's winning this tournament," said Courtney Fells. "And we're not going to be able to win this tournament with team issues that we had in the last game. So, we're just going to put the little things behind us and keep pushing forward."