That feeling was put to the test Saturday night when the Syracuse Orange faced N.C. State at the RBC Center, the first top-ranked non-conference opponent to visit Raleigh since Notre Dame in 1979. Following the Orange’s 88-72 thumping of the Wolfpack, however, a different air wafted about, one filled with introspection and resignation.
On paper, the Wolfpack had reason for cautious optimism entering the contest. Syracuse came in with an unblemished 10-0 record, but they played eight of those games at the Carrier Dome and the other two at neutral site Madison Square Garden, making this matchup the Orange’s first true road match this season. Moreover, only one of Syracuse’s first ten opponents (Florida) qualified for last season’s NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, half of the Wolfpack’s first nine opponents this season made that Big Dance.
The cyclical life cycle of Saturday’s game boiled down to four runs. Backed by a positively electric atmosphere, N.C. State jumped out to an eight point advantage over the opening six minutes, paced by the two C.J.'s: Leslie scored six points and Williams netted 11, including three 3-pointers, before the first media timeout. Scott Wood’s only jumper of the first half gave the Wolfpack a 29-23 advantage at the 8:12 mark.
In seemingly the blink of an eye, however, Syracuse launched an improbable 23-0 run, part of a 24-4 streak to end the opening stanza. The seasoned, talented team slowed the pace and settled into their formidable half-court offense, taking advantage of their tremendous size advantage inside and ability to knock down outside jumpers. The Orange was paced during this stretch by 15 points from Dion Waiters and three 3-pointers from James Southerland, both off the bench. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack turned the ball over 11 times, including five by Leslie.
Unwilling to succumb to inevitability, the Wolfpack began the second half the way they began the first. Wood's 3-pointer 30 seconds in sparked a 17-3 march that knotted the score 50-50 at the 15:27 mark. With score tied at 54, however, Syracuse would go on yet another run, this one 26-12 to race ahead by 14 points with four minutes remaining before coasting to the final outcome.
“We thought they were going to make a comeback [in the second half] and they did,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. “I thought the single best thing was when they made that comeback my boys kept their poise.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Gottfried said. “We had a great opportunity here tonight, and at times we did a lot of things really well. For us, the issue is sustaining that for longer periods of time.
"If you had told me before the game that [Syracause was] going to shoot 25 3-pointers I probably would have taken that…What they showed me tonight is that they win and score a lot of different ways… They earned my respect tonight. They were good on tape, but they were better in person…. I’ve been around a lot of good teams. That team right there might be playing on Monday night in April.”
Statistically, N.C. State hung with Syracuse in a variety of categories. They out-rebounded the Orange 28-26, shot slightly better from the field (57 percent) and beat them 19-9 in fast break points. Lorenzo Brown dished out 13 of the Wolfpack’s 21 assists, more than the entire Syracuse squad (11). C.J. Williams finished with a game-high 25 points, besting the career-high he set just last week versus North Carolina Central.
However, N.C. State ended the game with 19 turnovers to only eight for Syracuse. And, in one of the most shocking statistics you’ll ever see, Syracuse’s bench outscored N.C. State’s 46-4…yes, 46-4...paced by Waiters' 22 points. Kris Joseph, the team’s leading scorer, contributed 21 while Scoop Jardine tallied another 16 points, 14 of them on the second half.
“They’re number one for a reason,” said Williams. “They’re a really good team and have a lot of talented guys. And, they were able to pull it out today.
What is immediately concerning to the Wolfpack is that for the third time this season Leslie missed key minutes with apparent leg cramps. Leslie finished the game with 13 points and a game-high six rebounds, but he didn’t play much during the final 10 minutes. More than the game’s outcome, it was this troubling mystery that elicited the most consternation from Gottfried, who said the team has already solicited specialists to examine Leslie’s ongoing problem.
“To be honest we have to figure it out — I don’t know the answer. [Leslie] was playing well once he eliminated those [first half] turnovers, and then he was gone. It’s not his fault, but all of a sudden it’s crunch-time and…we need to find an answer there.”
Uncertainty surrounded what sort of reception Boeheim would receive for his first road trip since the sex scandal broke surrounding his longtime, now former assistant coach Bernie Fine. While Boeheim was lustily booed during pregame introductions, no pointed insults were heard being hurled by fans or any questions on the subject posed by the media. Still, two Wake County sheriff deputies escorted Boeheim to the media room after the game and stood sentry during the post-game press conference, a level of security not even afforded the home team’s gaffer. It remained unclear and unasked whether the police presence made Boeheim more or less at ease.
Notwithstanding, Boeheim was effusive in praising a Wolfpack squad for which he had clearly prepared.
“I’ve been impressed with the way [N.C. State] have played,” observed Boeheim. “I think they could have won two or three of the games that they lost. So, I thought this would be a difficult game and it was a difficult game…You don’t win many games on the road when the home team shoots 57 percent, including 50 percent from the three.”
Gottfried, while awe-struck by Syracuse’s talent and tenacity, continues to take the long view on the Wolfpack’s season.
“There are not a lot of teams in the country who have played the schedule we’ve played,” Gottfried asserted. “The tough part is we don’t have a glorious record to show for it. But, it’s not how you finish in December but how you finish in February…We’re going to be battle-tested come ACC action, and we are getting better in a lot of areas.”
N.C. State visits St. Bonaventure Tuesday night before enjoying a four-game home stand that begins Dec. 22 against Northeastern.