by Neil Morris
RBC CENTER/RALEIGH – Aside from the fact that two N.C. State players claimed Bad Boys II as their all-time favorite movie during a Jumbotron vignette that played during N.C. State's 72-67 win over Virginia in Raleigh, the game's most shocking statistic of the night might also be, ironically, the team's most gratifying one: Brandon Costner, zero points.
It is the first game this season the Pack's points leader has gone scoreless. But, the fact that N.C. State (15-10, 5-7 ACC) was able to pull out its third win in the past four games, and its fourth in the past six, is a testament to the balanced attack Coach Sidney Lowe has emphasized.
"I hope the percentages go in our favor, so that since (Costner) didn't score this game maybe he'll score big the next game," says Lowe. "The good thing is that we were able to win and guys stepped up. That's what you have to do as a team: If one guy isn't going, other guys have to step in and pick up."
Pick up they did. C.J. Williams came off the bench to score a career-high 16 points, and reserve forward Dennis Horner, who entered Saturday's contest averaging 5.7 points per game, chipped in 12 points, his third straight game scoring in double-digits.
Williams' freshman year has been one of maturation and adjustment. "I know that at the beginning of the year I wasn't contributing much offensively, but I was still in the starting line-up," says Williams. "Now that I'm coming off the bench, I come in with energy and play defense. That's where we are right now: Just keep playing defense and do what you can on the offensive end. But, never let down on defense."
"My shots have been feeling really good lately," adds Horner. "When I'm knocking down three-pointers, it makes the game easier. I'm more confident in my shot, and when guys in the post are getting double-teamed, they're kicking it out and I'm knocking it down for them."
In total, four N.C. State players scored in double figures, including Ben McCauley's 10 point and 10 rebound performance, and Tracy Smith, who, in making only his seventh start of the season, tossed in 13 points to go with seven rebounds.
"N.C. State is a difficult challenge because they have so many guys they can go to offensively," observed Virginia Coach Dave Leitao. "Any one of 11 guys are pretty skilled, and it puts you in a quandary. Our defense is predicated on help, but the more you help the more they play off that.
"In preparing for this game, I told my guys it could be anybody for them. Today is was Williams and Smith, and it's not always McCauley or Costner."
For the game, N.C. State shot 53.2 percent from the field, besting its season average and exceeding 50 percent for the third consecutive game. But, while the Wolfpack never trailed the Cavaliers (9-14, 3-9 ACC), they once again squandered large leads to make the game's outcome anything but foregone. Virginia whittled the Pack's 18-point first half lead to just four by halftime, and then N.C. State saw a 17-point gap narrow to just one with 7.2 seconds remaining in the game. But, four free throws by Courtney Fells (9 points) bookended a missed free throw by Virginia's freshman sensation Sylven Landesberg to account for the game's final score. Landesberg finished with 16 points but shot only 4-14 from the field, which Lowe associated with Fells' "astounding" defense.
"Well, we held on," observed Lowe. "I thought we came out early and got a nice lead but then got careless and turned the ball over a few times. They (Virginia) were aggressive and got back in the ballgame. But, I thought our guys did a good job towards the end keeping their composure. And, Courtney Fells made some key free throws to seal the ballgame. I thought it was a good game, and definitely a great win for us."
Still, in addition to exhibiting its propensity for squandering large leads, N.C. State gathered only two steals and committed 20 turnovers, the fourth time it has done that in the past six games. Starting point guard Javier Gonzalez scored nine points, but he also fumbled away seven turnovers and committed four fouls, which limited his playing time to only 21 minutes.
While a NCAA berth is out of reach barring an ACC Tournament win, a post-season NIT appearance appears within N.C. State's grasp. After traveling to Wake Forest this Thursday for a rematch against the Demon Deacons, the Wolfpack has home games against Maryland and Boston College before finishing the regular season at Miami.
"I like where we are as a team, both our mindset and the way we're playing," says Lowe. "Of course, we're trying to creep up the ladder. We'll take one game at a time and see where it takes us."