by Mike Potter
REYNOLDS COLISEUM/RALEIGH N.C. State plays its final women's basketball game before the ACC season starts later this week, and the Wolfpack is facing a bigger challenge than might have been apparent when the schedule was released.
Tonight's opponent is Ivy League member Columbia (8-4), which is having the best season in school history.
The Lions, who haven't had a winning season since 1986, fell to the Wolfpack 78-58 on Dec. 22, 2008, in New York in the first game then-State coach Kay Yow was unable to coach before her death from breast cancer last Jan. 24. That was Columbia's first game ever against an ACC opponent.
This season's Lions are definitely on a roll, and they have a local player in Melissa Shafer, a sophomore guard out of Cardinal Gibbons High.
Kellie Harper's Wolfpack is looking to pick up its 10th win in its 15 non-conference games to start the season. And State eventually hangs on for a nail-biting 60-58 win.
But it's pretty obvious from the start the Lions aren't going to go down without a fight.
State gets on a roll midway through the first half, going up 23-14 on a layup from Tia Bell (pictured) with 8:30 left in the period. But there is no knockout punch, and the Wolfpack is up 33-29 at the break after six lead changes and three ties.
The Lions make their biggest run of the game early in the second half, scoring 11 straight points to take a 47-41 lead on Judie Lomax' layup with 11:52 to go.
And it's scratch-and-claw time the rest of the way. State takes its first lead in nearly nine minutes on Nikitta Gartrell's old-fashioned three-point play to make it 54-53 with 5:45 to go.
The Wolfpack later gets a 57-56 lead on a hard-working follow shot from Bell with 2:34 to go. Kathleen Berry answers for Columbia with a pair of free throws with 2:07 showing, but then it's time for the home team to win it.
Bell hits a pair of free throws at 1:11 and Amber White adds the second of two to complete the scoring with 36 ticks left, but the drama isn't over.
Lions coach Paul Nixon calls time out with 13 seconds left. Then with three seconds to go Barry tries a 3-pointer from the top of the circle, but Sharnise Beal stuffs it to seal the win and deny the Lions their biggest win in the program's history.
The Wolfpack's stat sheet isn't much to brag about. Gartrell finishes with 15 points, Bell with 14 points and 10 rebounds and Bonae Holston 10 points.
Barry has 18 for the Lions while Lomax has 16 points with an unlikely 20 rebounds. Shafer hits a pair of 3-pointers and finishes with six points.
State shoots just 33.8 percent from the floor to Columbia's 31.8. The Lions win the rebound battle 49-45, but commit 19 turnovers to State's 13.
They said it ...
NCSU coach Kellie Harper: "(The Lions) obviously have a post presence, they have shooters and they know what they're doing. They play hard, and if you go back and look at their scores they have had a lot of close games. They know how to play. With that being said, I'm not extremely pleased with our play tonight. We had too many breakdowns on the defensive end, and too many times they had shooters wide open. ... But I told the players, the way I figure it, if you play ugly and you win - if you did that 20 times you've still got 20 wins."
Gartrell: "I think we kind of expected them to come out the way they did, and for this game to not be as close as it was but close. They played great. Our confidence level was high, but we weren't expecting them to come out the way they did and for this game to be this close. We kind of knew that they were going to come at us."
Bell: "It was an emotional roller-coaster. My heart was through the floor. ... Last year we played with more emotion because it was our first game without Coach Yow and we wanted to make a statement. We may have had more motivation last year. But we knew going into this game that they were scrappy and hard workers and we wanted to match that."
What does it all mean?
That the Wolfpack is off to a nice overall start with double-figure non-conference wins. And that Columbia is probably going to make a run at the Ivy League title.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Beal's block of Barry's 3-point attempt.
NCSU leads 2-0.
NCSU: Won 3.
Columbia: Lost 1.
NCSU vs. Maryland, Thursday, 7 p.m.
Columbia at St. Francis (N.Y.), Jan. 11, 7 p.m.