by Bob Geary
PNC ARENA/RALEIGH—A big, albeit early (conference) season game. It's mid-January, two months to go to March madness. Duke has already shown its toughness this season, going unbeaten against a strong schedule. With Ryan Kelly out, the Devils have some adjusting to do but nothing to prove. State has played good but not championship basketball so far — today's the day they can begin to show that they have the combination of effort and skills to conquer the ACC and maybe more.
And guess what? State has it, 84-76. Coach K sums it up: Lorenzo Brown is as good a guard as there is in the country. And Richard Howell is just a beast. Our kids played with a lot of heart, their kids played with a lot of heart. K has class. Seth Curry, who left the game with three minutes left? Not his shin, he turned his ankle, K says.
Stats: Howell, 16 points, 18 rebounds. C.J. Leslie, 25 and 6. Brown, 12 points, 13 assists.
What an entertaining first half. It ends with State up 41-39 on a T.J. Warren runner off a loose ball after a Curry 3 tied it at 39.
Duke has 12 offensive rebounds (part of 24-16 advantage on the boards), and Mason Plumlee is showing why he's a player of year candidate. Plumlee keeps cleaning up misses, and has 10 points and 8 boards; Curry has 9 points. With Kelly out, Duke is playing with three guards, and they're hard to keep out of the lane, allowing Plumlee to use his quickness around the basket.
For State, C.J. Leslie has 11 and Scott Wood, on 3-of-3 shooting from the arc (one of which came with an and-one) has 10. Lorenzo Brown picked up two early fouls but played through and ends the half with just the two. But he did see Marcus Cook go by him a couple of times, leading to baskets by Plumlee or Amile Jefferson, who's getting playing time and finished the half with 8 points.
Give credit to State's Richard Howell. He's defending the bigger (by 2-3 inches) Plumlee most of the time on the block, and he's holding his own against arguably the best big man in the country with 6 points and 5 rebounds.
It's an up-and-down game by two very fast teams who are playing strong ball, and a sold-out PNC Arena is absolutely rocking. This is what ACC basketball is supposed to be.
State jumps on Duke at the start of the second half, with — count 'em — three baskets underneath by Howell against Plumlee and a driving layup by Rodney Purvis. It's 49-43 State at the 15:40 timeout.
At the under-12:00 timeout, which comes at 8:55 mark, State is up 62-57. This game of big-time basketball is all about focus. State missed a couple of open shots — open shots because Duke wanted to give them — and suddenly on a Curry 3, it was 58-57 State. (Curry has 16). Gottfried calls timeout. The next two plays by State are run for C.J. Leslie, who rolls in a jumper and then backs down Hairston, and suddenly it's State 62-57.
By the way, Howell is getting every rebound now.
And, with time in, Leslie on a drive off an underneath inbounds play, 64-57. A Duke miss, Brown comes out of a scrum and throws down to Purvis, who drives and scores and it's 66-59 with an and-one coming at the under-8:00 timeout. State has turned it up several notches and Duke is out of sync.
Plumlee with a pretty left-hand take against Leslie, and then a Curry 3, and Duke cuts it to four. Warren answers with a baseline runner and it's 73-67, State, at the 3:15 TO. Curry is down, writhing on the floor, but gets up. No foul. Did that shin give out on him?
Oh, man, it's a heavyweight match underneath as Plumlee and Leslie battle at both ends. Plumlee takes Leslie, then Leslie comes back and takes him. 75-69. Leslie has 23 and 5 rebounds, Howell 16 and 17. Curry is out of the game. Cook misses, and with less than a minute left, Duke must foul and fouls Brown. Brown makes one. Cook drives and scores — he has 12 — and it's 76-71 with 40 seconds left. Duke TO.
Who's the best big man on the floor? It's Plumlee, but it's a point Leslie isn't conceding.
Duke fouls Brown again. 10th team foul. Brown makes both, State up 7.
Howell swats Cook shot away — cleanly, as the replay shows — and Cooks gets a call. Makes both, lead is 5. Thornton fouls out and Wood goes to the line. Wood is pure on the first one, pure on the second. State by 7. Still 32 seconds left. Cook double-dribbles. Duke doesn't want to foul Wood again, and so 10 seconds go by before they can foul Leslie. Who makes the first and the second. State by 9.
Cook a 3. And they have to foul Wood. 15 seconds, and it's 82-76. Wood at the line ...
hits one ... hits two. 84-76.
A Duke miss and it's over, and State fans flood the floor. 84-76. Welcome to the big time, NC State. Duke, without Kelly and with Curry down the stretch, ran out of gas.
There is not a square inch of space on the floor and the fans are literally carrying C.J. Leslie, who is absolutely loving it.
Coach K says, I'm not asking for anybody's sympathy. On Howell, he's unique, he doesn't need the ball all the time, plays with amazing maturity, and he rebounds the ball. The word rebounds is said with utter respect. Lorenizo Brown in transition, and Howell under the basket, are terrific players, K says. He says they're the two to talk about when asked to comment on other State players.
Mason Plumlee? "He played great," K says. (True.) He didn't have his partner (Kelly). Hairston and Jefferson played well, but they don't know all the defensive sets yet. K is sanguine; he's got work to do on what is now a different team without Kelly. "We lost to a really good team."
Coach Gott is in the house: Big difference was, the way we rebounded in the second half, Gott says. Without Kelly, Duke was shorthanded, and they played really well. Our team was much better in second half. Howell? He played a man's game. In one timeout, Howell assured G he'd get every rebound :) and he pretty much did. It comes down to saying, we're gonna get it done, Gott says. This game: It's mental.
Also, Gott likes how the younger players are learning how to play with the veterans. Liked how Purvis and Warren put pressure on Curry throughout, though Curry hit shots and scored 22, they weren't an easy 22. C. J. Leslie? "Unbelievable ... almost unstoppable," is Gott's assessment. (Me: Leslie had a few defensive lapses, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Overall, he played his a— off and had an excellent game.)
Now, Gott says, we need to go on the road against Maryland. There's a long way to go — an 18-game conference season. And the four veterans get it, they need to provide the collective leadership for the team to understand, this is just one game — a fun win, but just one win.
"Our crowd was unreal," Gott says. "My hope is that we can continue to deliver, because we have a passionate fan base ... hope we can keep getting better, because it's fun for everyone."