by Bob Geary
It was very nearly a disaster. N.C. State, up 17 at home midway through the second half, blew the lead, trailed by one with a minute left, but rallied to beat lowly Miami 72-70 thanks to heroics by Tracy Smith, Ryan Harrow and C.J. Williams and another solid all-around performance by Rich Howell.
Howell led State scorers with 17 and had five rebounds. Smith had 16 points and seven rebounds. Harrow missed some easy shots and finished with just five points, but he had seven assists and three steals, including a critical theft in the final minute. Without Harrow's offensive leadership, State loses this game. But then you could say the same about Williams' defensive leadership. Lorenzo Brown had a nice game off the bench, including some stretches where he subbed for Harrow at the point. He had 10 points, six (!) rebounds and four assists. Box score is here.
After Smith's three-point play on a nice feed from Harrow put State ahead 69-66, Miami scored on a Malcolm Grant jumper and a Durand Scott put-back after Scott's own miss and a follow-up miss by Miami big man (as in 300 lbs. worth) Reggie Johnson. At that point, Miami led 70-69.
On State's next possession, Harrow penetrated and put up a floater in the lane that was much too hard. Tracy Smith managed to keep the rebound alive over the massive Johnson and then grab it and score to put State up 71-70. It was pure, unadulterated effort by Smith and a bit of luck that Harrow's miss caromed high enough that Smith could even — and just barely — get a hand on it without fouling Johnson.
Miami pushed downcourt and Scott, now being guarded by Williams in an effort to keep him from penetrating, came off a pick and drove only to have Harrow sneak in from behind to pick his pocket. Harrow pushed the ball to Williams who was fouled with 15.9 seconds remaining.
Williams hit the first free throw, but the second rimmed out, giving Miami a chance to win. But again, good defense led by Williams forced Scott to deliver the ball to Grant where he didn't want it deep on the left baseline. Grant drove on Wood, who was trying — he told the press afterward — to commit a foul that State, with just five team fouls in the second half, could afford to give. But the refs called nothing and Grant in desperation attempted to shuffle the ball along the baseline to Johnson, who had Smith and Williams all over him. The ball went to the floor with Smith and Williams on it, and in the scrum, time expired.
Coming in, State and Miami were tied for next-to-last place in the ACC at 1-3. The only other team with fewer than two wins is Wake Forest at 0-5. So today's loser rests in 11th place, not where an NCAA-hopeful team like State wants to be. Emphasis on the word hope.
Moreover, today was the day State celebrated 100 years of basketball, a lot of it damned good in the Everett Case-Norm Sloan-Jim Valvano era. Not so long ago, State's Red Terrors — under Case — dominated the old Southern Conference, virtually willing big-time college basketball into existence in the South and with it the creation of the ACC. State then dominated the ACC and won national championships in the '70s, under Sloan, and the '80s, under Valvano. It can be done. In fact, Coach Sidney Lowe used the occasion to take his players to the grave sites of Case, Sloan and Valvano this weekend, underscoring for them the tradition they're supposed to be upholding. (Actually, renewing. State's last ACC title came in 1987—24 years ago.)
At the start of the game, it seemed like the Pack had the message, jumping out to a quick 12-2 lead. As advertised, Lowe started a "big" lineup, but in a bit of a surprise, the "C.J." who started at the small-forward position was Williams, not Leslie — the latter missed practice Saturday due to illness and played just 14 minutes today off the bench. With Harrow and Scott Wood in the backcourt and C.J. Williams, Rich Howell and Tracy Smith up front, State looked was in control briefly, but then the Pack starting jacking up bad shots while Miami, which began with 6-for-20 shooting from the floor, nonetheless pushed back and took a 21-20 lead at one point.
At that stage, Lorenzo Brown provided a spark with a couple of high-flying rebounds (he had six for the game) and five quick points (of his 10 total). But State wasn't comfortably ahead until C.J. Williams tracked down a long rebound off a Harrow miss and tossed up a 35-foot rainbow that swished as the halftime buzzer sounded. 37-30, State.
In the second half, a couple 3s by Wood and some neat screen-roll plays by Harrow to Smith and Howell, respectively, sparked a 14-4 State run and the Pack led 55-38 about eight minutes in. But in the next eight minutes, State gave it all back, and it wasn't hard to see why. State got its lead playing hustling, trapping defense, usually led by Williams, who was all over the place creating trouble for Miami's quick guards Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant.
But when State's defense relaxed, as it did periodically, Miami got easy shots. They missed a bunch of them early on, but in the second half, Grant in particular heated up with three 3s (he was 5-for-5 for the game from the arc) and 15 of his game-high 23 points. State cannot defend good guards man-to-man. It must scramble, chase and trap in the backcourt to be effective, and that's hard work. C. J. Williams, in his 23 minutes, played hard and smart (no fouls, two blocks). Not to say Harrow, Brown and Wood didn't play hard too, but they were more effective defensively when C.J. was in. Seemed like State's big men played with more energy too behind Williams (i.e., they were quicker stepping out and back again versus Miami's screen-roll plays).
It creates an issue for Lowe, because C.J. Williams, though not ineffective offensively, is not the scoring or offensive rebounding threat that C.J. Leslie is. But they can't both play the small-forward position, or at least they can't play it at the same time.
Lowe is frankly "battling to get wins," and he said he'll "go with the players who are getting it done." Yes, Leslie was under the weather a bit, but Lowe said the main reason C.J. Williams logged 23 minutes and Leslie just 14 was the quality of Williams' play. At the end of the game, Lowe did a bit of offense-defense substituting, bringing Williams and Rich Howell in for defense and Leslie and Brown for offense. Expect to see more of that while the latter two work to improve, not their defensive hustle so much as their defensive technique. As Lowe said, Williams and Howell are better schooled in HOW to defend quick guards and big screeners. At the end, those two helped get it done.