by Mike Potter
RBC CENTER/RALEIGH N.C. State opens the New Year with an early game against the University of San Diego in the finale of a six-game homestand.
It’s a guarantee game with no return match set, and the 8-4 Wolfpack is a solid 20-point favorite over USD (3-10), which has one victory over a Division I opponent. The mystery is whether or not this might be the first appearance of State’s go-to center Tracy Smith since the Nov. 18 game against East Carolina after which he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Bad news for the Toreros is that Smith does appear with 15:12 left in the first half, and he turns out to be the biggest presence on the floor in a 76-54 victory.
Even without Smith on the floor the Wolfpack wastes no time taking control, as the score is 8-0 following a pair of Javier Gonzalez free throws with 17:19 left in the half.
A big cheer goes up when Smith heads to the scorer’s table and checks in, and his presence wakes up the sleepy building as he obliges the fans with a dunk at 14:44.
He only gets better, scoring 12 points in 12 minutes in the first half.
State has pretty much put the game away with a 43-25 lead at halftime. The Wolfpack outshoots the Toreros 56.3 percent to 34.6 before the break and leads the rebound battle 22-11 on the strength of 10 from Richard Howell.
The second half is more of the same.
State’s biggest lead is 29 points — at 64-35 on a DeShawn Painter dunk with 10:12 to go and 68-39 on a Smith layup at 7:08 —as the margin is in the 20s the entire second period.
Smith leads all scorers with 16 points in 25 minutes to lead four Wolfpack players in double figures. Lorenzo Brown adds 14 points while Howell chips in a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds along with five assists. Ryan Harrow adds 12 points including 6-for-7 from the floor.
Devin Ginty is USD’s only player in double figures with 10 points.
State shoots 55.2 percent from the floor to the Toreros’ 33.9 and wins the rebound battle 45-25, getting 33 defensive boards along the way. USD wins only in the turnover department, committing 12 to 17 for the hosts.
They said it …
N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe: “Our defense was real solid today. We didn’t allow back-door cuts and we handled their offense. I thought our focus was great today, and that allowed us to get out on the floor and really play our game. It was good to see (Smith) in there and his teammates were really glad to see him in there. He gives the other guys a big lift, no question about it, because now they can play — they’re looking at him, they’re looking to pop it in there, or the defense is worried about Tracy so there are gaps open. Richard did a great job, because against the zone they’re trying to take two guys on Tracy because we went to him the first time and scored. The second time they tried to double him Richard got wide open in the middle.”
San Diego coach Bill Grier: “I thought they came out and got us on our heels, and we went into a corner and just covered up. We’ve played some pretty high-level teams this year and kind of responded that well in all those. What I was most disappointed in is, having had experience in playing an athletic team like this I thought we’d show a little more fight early in the game and we didn’t.”
Smith: “I missed those guys all the time. Whether we win or lose, I’ve told them I can’t wait to come back. They know I miss them and they miss me. We’re back united and ready to win. The knee feels great. No pain at all from the start to the end, no pain at all. I felt like I could have played the last game (Tuesday against Alabama A&M), but Coach said he wanted me to have a couple days of practice and see how it felt. I’ve been anxious to get on the court. My team needed me, and I just wanted to get out there and do what I do best. My game is to score the basketball. … I felt great about the crowd’s reaction. On facebook, everywhere, people have been “When are you coming back? When are you coming back?” So I knew when I was getting ready to come into the game they would give me a big cheer.”
Howell: “We just went out and played hard just like Coach asked us to. We found out a couple of practices ago Tracy was going to play, but we didn’t want to put all the pressure on him. We just wanted him to feel comfortable enough to play. He definitely benefits me — it’s like 16-17 points a game, so for me to be able to find him down low for basically an automatic basket it definitely helps.”
What does it all mean?
That the Wolfpack is a far better basketball team with its go-to big man on the floor, perhaps the difference between an NCAA team and an NIT wannabe.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Smith’s slam from Howell to make it 32-15 with 5:18 left in the first half.
NCSU leads 1-0.
NCSU: Won 3.
USD: Lost 1.
NCSU vs. Elon, Greensboro, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
USD at Pepperdine, Thursday, 9 p.m.