by Neil Morris
TV/RAYCOM - N.C. State hung around...and hung around Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Thursday night. But, in the end, the Wolfpack could not overcome a stellar night by Wake Forest sophomore forward James Johnson as the Demon Deacons avenged their Feb. 11 loss in Raleigh with a 85-78 victory.
Johnson scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to pace the 13th-ranked Demon Deacons, who improved to 21-5 on the season (yet only 8-5 in conference play). Ishmael Smith came off the bench with a season-high 18 points, and center Chas McFarland added 15 points. For the game, Wake Forest shot 52.5 percent from the field and, most significantly, out-rebounded N.C. State 41-25.
Still, the Wolfpack had their chances.
After trailing by 13 points in the first half and nine with seven minutes remaining, N.C. State (15-11, 5-8 ACC) cut the Wake Forest lead to just three and had possession of the ball with just over two minutes to play. But, after a Wolfpack miss, Johnson closed the game out with six points to seal the win.
N.C. State stayed in the contest thanks to excellent ball control, turning the ball over only eight times, the lowest since their six turnover effort against Winthrop the third game of the season. And, Farnold Degand's best scoring efforts thus far this season were both against Wake Forest: After scoring 14 in the Pack's victory, Degand again came off the bench to toss in 12 points while adding five assists in the loss.
Five Wolfpack players scored in double-digits, including 18 points from the ever-improving Tracy Smith. However, although Brandon Costner added 10 points, he made only 4-13 field goals. When coupled with his scoreless effort against Virginia last Saturday, that makes Costner 4-17 from the field over his last two games, a far cry from his 48.6 field goal percentage entering the Wake Forest game.
N.C. State now returns to Raleigh for two games, against Maryland on Sunday and Boston College next Wednesday, before traveling to Miami to end the regular season. Three straight victories would give the Wolfpack a .500 regular season ACC record, a likely NIT berth, and a measure of optimism for a team with only one senior (Ben McCauley) among their top contributors. Oh, by the way...they're still on John Wall's short list.