RALEIGH — RALEIGH - There wasn't a moment when things seemed easy for N.C. State on Thursday night.
Elon made the experience excruciating for the Wolfpack, forcing it to rally from an 11-point first-half deficit and exert all it had physically down the stretch to pull-out a 79-76 victory over the Phoenix at the RBC Center.
Left to explain what happen, to explain why a 3-8 team from the Southern Conference pushed the Pack to its limits, players and coaches were searching for answers after the game.
"Maybe we thought this was going to be an easy win," said senior State forward Dennis Horner, who scored a career-high 23 points, including eight points in the first half to help cut the half-time deficit to 39-33.
State junior Tracy Smith, playing with a bruised right thigh suffered early in the game, scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half when the Pack made its run. His rebound and put-back layup with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining tied the score at 61-61. His free throw after being fouled on the play gave the Pack a one-point lead.
From there, the Pack scraped past the Phoenix, muscling for rebounds and finishing at the free throw line, though it was never pretty or safe. The lead changed hands 12 times.
The Phoenix, who shot 46.9 percent from the field, always seemed within striking distance. And with eight seconds remaining trailed by just two points after T.J. Douglas drilled the team's seventh 3-pointer.
But over the final minute, with Pack securing the rebounding advantage, Julius sophomore guard Julius Mays made 6 of 8 free throws to help close the door on an Elon team that played nothing like its record suggested.
"We got away with one tonight," State coach Sidney Lowe said. "I can't say we didn't deserve it because we came back and made plays. We didn't give them the respect they deserved."
By the night's end, the Pack certainly had to respect the Phoenix, which were led by a career-high 26 point performance from Adam Constantine. The senior forward, an Enloe High graduate, made 12 of 18 shots and snagged 10 rebounds.
The Phoenix also remained relevant in this game by sticking their outside shots. Four players scored in double figures, including senior Devan Carter who added 12 point and was 2-for-3 from 3-point range.
"We came here to get better, and we came here to be competitively tough for 40 minutes," Elon coach Matt Matheny, whose team had scored just 31 points in loss to Samford on Dec. 3. "We got better, and we were competitively tough for 40 minutes. We want more out of our program, and we want to win."
A similar sentiment was expressed by State players who were perplexed by the sluggish start to the game. The Pack starts is ACC schedule on Sunday, traveling to Winston-Salem to face Wake Forest (7-2).
If they are to have success in the league, players said there can be no excuses. Horner, who had an 8 a.m. class on Thursday morning, said there was no reason for his teammates to be lackadaisical.
"We can't get behind like that against someone like Wake Forest," he said. "We've got to come out and hit them in the mouth first to establish ourself that we've come in here to play ball."
Smith, who talked to the team at halftime, agreed: "Everybody was playing back like, 'This is Elon. Wake Forest beat them by 40, we should beat them by 40.' Everybody was just playing lackadaisical. Once the second half hit everybody thought that if we lost this game it would be bad for us. Everybody would think what they thought about us that we would finish 12th in the ACC."
Still, Lowe wasn't interested in this game serving as a wake call.
"How many times can you get a wake up call," Lowe said. "Pretty soon, you have to wake yourself up."
State out-rebounded Elon 40-36, including three more offensive boards.
"The offensive boards were helpful," Lowe added. "We didn't do that in the first half. Deshawn [Painter] really got us going. Dennis Horner had great effort tonight. Good teams find a way to win. We're still trying to become a good team, but we found a way to win."
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