EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — C.J. Leslie showed some rust on his return to N.C. State in the first game of Saturday's TicketCity Legends Classic, but his energy level wasn't enough to overcome Vanderbilt.
The Commodores, ranked No 18, scored an 86-79 decision at the Izod Center. However, the night belonged to Leslie. He scored a team-high 20 points and provided the Wolfpack with energy on both ends, especially in the first half when they trailed 49-45.
Leslie was making his season debut after sitting out the first three games after it was determined he and a relative received "impermissible benefits" totaling $410. Leslie, a 6-foot-8 sophomore power forward, entered the game with 16 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first half.
He showed little effect from his time away, getting to the basket and drawing fouls. Leslie was 6 of 6 from the field in the first half and 6 of 10 from the line for 18 points in 15 minutes. Leslie wasn't as dominant in the second half, scoring four points in 12 minutes as a result of cramps in his leg.
"I thought in the first half he (Leslie) was exceptional," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. "Once he started cramping up that was tough for us, but he was really good early.
"Here's the tricky part. We played well without him, but we need him. So he's got to integrate himself into our play without breaking the stride of the other guys. He needs to adapt to us as we need to adapt to him. But it's nice to have him back because he does give our team something we don't have when he's not in there - athletic ability."
Richard Howell added 16 points and nine rebounds and Lorenzo Brown contributed 13 points and four steals for the Wolfpack. John Jenkins led four Vanderbilt players in double figures with 28 points, shooting 10 of 16 from the floor.
N.C. State (3-1) took its first lead when Alex Johnson nailed a 3-pointer to give his team a 66-64 lead with eight minutes to play. With 5:57 to go and Vandy ahead 69-68, Leslie limped off. He didn't re-enter until 1:16 to play and the Commodores holding an 81-77 lead.
The Wolfpack's last lead was 77-76 on a DeShawn Painter lay-in at 2:43. Vandy then closed with a 9-3 run.
"I liked the ways our guys competed hard," Gottfried said. "I liked the effort from our group. We'll build on that. I walk out of here disappointed, but there's also a lot of things I liked. We're a work in progress, I know that."
N.C. State had difficulty defending the 3-pointer. Vanderbilt connected on 8 of 17 from beyond the arc in the first half and led 49-45. The Wolfpack shot a blistering 60 percent from the floor (15 of 25) and outscored Vandy 22-8 in the paint in the half, thanks largely to Leslie's presence.
The Wolfpack was still without 6-8 freshman forward Thomas de Thaey, who hasn't cleared NCAA eligibility.
Gottfried said that junior forward Scott Wood is still a "week away, minimum," to return from his ankle injury.