DeCock: Leslie’s big plays turned game for N.C. State

ldecock@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2012 

— There was nothing in the scouting report to send C.J. Leslie going after the ball on the perimeter. He just did it.

His first steal led to a hard foul that jump-started the run that got N.C. State back into the game in the first half. His second, the one he finished with a breakaway dunk, was a four-point swing going into halftime on Georgetown’s final possession.

Two of the biggest plays of the game, and Leslie just went and did it. The Wolfpack was told to pressure Georgetown’s slick-passing forwards on the perimeter, but no one imagined this.

“That was just me playing defense,” Leslie said. “I don’t think I was supposed to go for the steal, but if it’s there, I want to take it.”

As N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried put it later, using his name for Leslie, “that’s Calvin being Calvin.”

There was a time when “Calvin being Calvin” might have meant a poorly chosen shot, a bad foul, an ill-advised complaint to a referee. Now, it means a big dunk, a game-changing block, a team moving on in the NCAA tournament with Sunday’s 66-63 win over third-seeded Georgetown.

There were contributions from all over the board as the 11th-seeded Wolfpack moved on to the West Regionals and a potential fourth meeting with North Carolina.

Scott Wood hit four 3-pointers on a day when the Wolfpack desperately needed his outside shooting. C.J. Williams, his ankle gimpy, his career on the line, broke out of a slump. And Lorenzo Brown was as cool as ever with the ball in his hands -- and with the game in his hands, making five of his final seven free throws to hold off the Hoyas.

But Leslie made two plays that really turned the game around, and if he was the symbol of N.C. State’s dysfunction last year -- a lost player on a lost team in a lost season -- he is equally the symbol of the program’s resurrection.

He has grown up before our eyes, even over the course of this season, culminating in his impassioned tribute to Gottfried’s mentoring at the ACC tournament. It’s hard to imagine Leslie reading that from a script a year ago; last week, it came straight from his heart.

And as Leslie has grown, so has the Wolfpack. A collection of disparate, if talented, parts at the beginning of the season, bereft of hope and belief a year ago, the Wolfpack is saving its best for last.

Gottfried let CBS’ cameras into the locker room for his pregame speech, and it proved to be not only prophetic, but a reflection of how far the Wolfpack has come in such a short time.

“I told you this the other day and I believe it with all my heart: You’re good enough,” Gottfried told the team. “You’re good enough to do this. You’re good enough to advance. There’s a plane waiting for you, to take you to St. Louis. There’s hotel rooms waiting for you. There’s a game waiting for you to be played in St. Louis.”

The Wolfpack has believed that for a while, but the converts are starting to gather.

The players haven’t changed since Gottfried took over. The attitude has. As much as anyone, Leslie has bought into the new direction of the program, and the Wolfpack couldn’t have gotten this far without him.

Leslie may be onto bigger and better things after this season, and at this point, he has earned it. He has blossomed into an impact player just as N.C. State has blossomed into a team that fears no one, not even the juggernauts waiting across the river in St. Louis.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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