RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—As North Carolina State students stormed the court following the Wolfpack's 82-76 upset victory over seventh-ranked Wake Forest, the raucous spectacle felt as much like a collective sigh of relief as a mass celebration.
Three days after squandering an 18-point second-half lead only to lose at Virginia Tech, N.C. State nearly surpassed that ignominious feat as they watched a 20-point lead over the Demon Deacons with 13:44 remaining shrivel to just two inside the final minute. But, after N.C. State's Ben McCauley hit one of two free throws and Wake Forest's James Johnson missed a three-pointer with 31 seconds left, guard Javier Gonzalez sealed the win with two free throws as the Wolfpack (13-9, 3-6 ACC) improved their record at the RBC Center this season to 12-3.
Brandon Costner's game-high 23 points led the way as five N.C. State players scored in double figures. However, it was the play of junior guard Farnold Degand that provided the Wolfpack's most unexpected and perhaps valuable spark.
It was uncertain whether Degand, who was suspended for the Virginia Tech game due to violation of the team's academic policy, would even play against Wake Forest (indeed, guard Trevor Ferguson did not play in either game because of similar violations). Yet, although averaging 4.9 points in under 20 minutes per game this season, Degand played 26 minutes against the Demon Deacons, scoring 14 points and chipping in 4 assists along with 3 steals. Moreover, he spelled a struggling Gonzalez, who scored only one point and committed three turnovers during the first half.
However, as N.C. State saw its 20-point lead cut in half over a three-minute span midway through the second half, N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe inserted a three-guard set of Degand, Gonzalez and Courtney Fells (12 points) to combat Wake Forest's stifling full-court press. All three players responded, helping to limit N.C. State to just one turnover over the game's final ten minutes.
"They were trying to speed us up, and we wanted to continue to attack," said Lowe. "We had to have another ball-handler in there...and, because of [Wake Forest's] match-ups, we felt that one of those guys would have a good match-up where they would be able to get by their [defender]."
As he had against Miami and Virginia Tech, Lowe utilized a box-and-one zone defense that frustrated Wake Forest standout Jeff Teague. Teague, who entered the game ranked second in the ACC averaging over 20 points per game, scored 11 points and did not make a field goal until the 15:52 mark of the second half.
After beginning the season 16-0, Wake Forest (18-4, 5-4 ACC) has now lost four of six games, including three consecutive road defeats. Despite shooting 50 percent from the field, the high-powered Demon Deacon offense failed to score 80 points for the sixth time out of the last seven games. But, according to Demon Deacon coach Dino Gaudio, the difference in the game came down to rebounds and turnovers. N.C. State had 17 offensive rebounds, with Tracy Smith alone hauling in 10 to go along with 12 points.
"Seventeen second-shots and 17 turnovers-that's the difference in the game," lamented Gaudio. "It only takes 2.5 seconds to put a body on somebody. One time, maybe twice, we didn't box out on the free throw line, which is inexcusable. We didn't even box out the shooter one time, and they scored on that possession. Box the shooter ... I mean, you learn that in third grade."
N.C. State also enjoyed a decided advantage at the charity stripe, making 23 of 31 free throw attempts as compared with 9 of 16 for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were whistled for 24 fouls altogether, with forward Al-Farouq Aminu fouling out with 11:58 left in the game.
With the eyes of the college basketball world averted 20 miles away toward Durham for the North Carolina-Duke scrum, the N.C. State-Wake Forest game was not even televised (some local bars showed a live Internet feed of the game). The fortunate 16,000-plus in attendance saw an exciting game and the Wolfpack's best win of the year. "I hate that people couldn't see the game on TV," said Lowe. "But, at least our fans saw it."