RALEIGH, N.C.—The N.C. State Wolfpack women’s basketball team went dancing in Raleigh Wednesday night. As hundreds of fans stormed the court before the clock could even expire as the States men defeated the No. 6-ranked Duke University Blue Devils 88-74, the women’s team—who’d been introduced during a time-out—waltzed onto the floor, claimed their corner and celebrated.
“I didn’t know they were going to storm the court,” said a N.C. State Coach Sidney Lowe, smiling about the red-and-white student throng. “When I turned around and saw the kids all over the court the court, I thought, ‘This is what it’s all about.’”
Indeed, Wednesday night’s surprise Wolfpack victory—surprise in the sense that the team picked to finish last in this year’s topsy-turvy ACC outplayed and defeated the team picked to finish first—was a major one for a State team that was close to the ropes. With six losses and a tough slate of conference games in the coming weeks, the win could redirect the Wolfpack season, which, so far, has been full of inconsistent shooting, torpid play and tough losses.
Tonight they had their way with the Blue Devils, however, dismantling a 1-2-2 zone defense with swift inside cuts, effective movement around the perimeter and fearless inside play and superb shooting from junior forward Tracy Smith on his 22nd birthday. The Wolfpack shot 58.2% from the floor, posting their best numbers since a December game versus Georgia Southern.
Duke, meanwhile, leaves another off night from the field still in search of its first true away win. The Devils’ weak man-to-man defense couldn’t contain Smith and chose not to double-team him (something he’s struggled against this year, given his slow motion to the basket), while Duke’s four big men scored only one more point (13 total) than they committed fouls (12). The Plumlee brothers, who combined for 30 points Sunday versus Wake Forest, combined for only two points in 23 minutes. Schmingler combined for 61 points, but combined with a negligible inside presence, it wasn’t enough to stop the kinetic Pack tonight.
Duke jumped to a swift lead despite several early turnovers, leading by five points six minutes in off of a Jon Scheyer three pointer. But just more than a minute later, N.C. State took the lead for the first and only time. Farnold Degand, who scored 11 points and netted six assists in his third start of the year, delivered a sharp pass to Smith down low off of a Duke turnover. Smith dunked it hard, and N.C State never looked back, pushing the lead to as high as 10 points in the first half.
That turnover—the second in a string of three for Duke—came at the hands of N.C. State’s effective half-court pressure, which forced many of Duke’s 14 giveaways (one less than their season high, which came in a win at home versus Clemson). Duke has handled the press well this year, breaking through it handily in that Clemson game. N.C. State, though, has struggled against the press, especially in a loss to Florida, but tonight they were able to move the ball efficiently up the floor and to maintain composure long enough to call timeouts when trapped.
N.C. State has had its share of leads and kept plenty of good teams close this year, only to fall short in close contest with Arizona, Florida and Saturday against Clemson. And Duke sent a threatening signal to end the first, as Nolan Smith hit a difficult three-pointer as the final second ticked off of the clock.
N.C. State came out with a well-designed plan, though, setting up a play for freshman forward Scott Wood. Hampered by the excellent defense of Duke’s Kyle Singler, Wood didn’t take a shot the first half. His opening three-pointer, though, drew a foul, and his three made free throws set an 11-3 N.C. State run in motion. Duke continued to struggle with turnovers and with Smith down low, often losing him on switches and allowing him to get separation and decent shots. Duke eventually began to whittle State’s 17-point lead to just 8, but Javier Gonzalez hit perhaps the biggest shot of his career—a wild, wobbly three-pointer in the face of the much-taller Mason Plumlee as the shot clock hit two. His shot proved to be the one that broke the Devils’ pitchfork, wresting away all the momentum and pushing the lead into double digits with less than four minutes remaining.
Duke’s defense couldn’t find its stride tonight, confirmed head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the game: “Our defense was the worst it’s been all year. It was never, ever good tonight.” N.C. State’s energy and execution simply bested his team’s, too, he said, and tonight the Devils were just a tired team that didn’t have a spark.
“This is probably the closest we have come to playing a game,” Lowe said after the game. Speaking of birthdays, tonight wasn’t just a gift for Smith. “I turn 50 tomorrow and this is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received. I thanked the guys.”