NEW YORK — Jim Valvano made a career, and won a national title, out of winning close games for N.C. State.
In only its second appearance in the Jimmy V Classic, N.C. State honored Valvano in the most appropriate way possible, a close win over Connecticut at Madison Square Garden.
Richard Howell scored 13 points and Lorenzo Brown added 16 to lead the No. 25 Wolfpack to a 69-65 win over the Huskies on Tuesday night.
"He did a lot for our school," Brown said of Valvano. "We wanted to make a statement tonight."
C.J. Leslie, who added 16 points and 13 rebounds, went one step further than Brown.
"This one was for him, too," Leslie said. "I'm sure he's throwing up the 'Wolfpack' sign in his grave."
N.C. State (5-2) wore special uniforms to honor Valvano, their late coach who led them to the 1983 national title and succumbed to cancer 10 years later. Instead of player names, the jerseys had Valvano's inspirational line, "Don't Ever Give Up" on the back of the jerseys.
After disappointing early-season losses to Oklahoma State and Michigan, the 25th-ranked Wolfpack needed to show some life outside the ACC.
"Our team took a step forward, we did against Michigan the other day and we are improving," coach Mark Gottfried said. "I think that's the most important thing."
Howell provided the spark with 11 of his 13 points in the second half and all 10 of his rebounds.
It was a win N.C. State needed. The Wolfpack, not the 2011 national champs, started the season at No. 6 in the country and with big expectations.
The Huskies, meanwhile, were a program in disarray. The NCAA benched the program for the postseason for poor Academic Progress Rate scores, which cost UConn two transfers. Two other underclassmen jumped early to the NBA.
And longtime coach Jim Calhoun, winner of three NCAA titles, retired and turned the program over to former point guard Kevin Ollie.
If not for the inspired second half from Howell, who was briefly knocked out of the game in the first half by an inadvertent elbow from Leslie, N.C. State would have been searching for serious answers about a nonconference season gone awry.
Leslie joked he knocked some sense into Howell with the collision in the first half.
"I guess we can say that because he had a great second half," Leslie said. "That was fantastic how he played."
Howell's follow of a Rodney Purvis miss with 4:42 left in the game gave the Pack a 57-53 lead. Leslie's steal and dunk 27 seconds after Howell's put-back gave State the breathing room it needed to close out the Huskies, who played hard and gave State its best shot.
Fittingly, Howell put the game away with a basket with 1:14 left. He missed his free throw but tapped the miss back to out to Brown to give the Pack an extra possession.
Gottfried said Howell had stinger from the collision with Leslie and was checked for a concussion at halftime.
"He said he was fine, I wasn't real sure," Gottfried said. "And then he just played phenomenal. He played with a tremendous amount of heart."
Guard Shabazz Napier led UConn with 19 points and big man Enosch Wolf had 12 points off the bench.
Napier scored 15 points in the first half, including the first 10 of the game for the Huskies. UConn can't play at Madison Square Garden at the end of the season, in the Big East tournament, so it was intent on making the most of the trip.
The Huskies' biggest lead of the first half was 11 points. Omar Calhoun's 3-pointer at 11:37 gave UConn a 20-9 advantage.
N.C. State struggled in the first half with Scott Wood in foul trouble, he had three in the first 9 minutes of the game, and a groggy Howell, who missed the final 7 minutes of the first half.
The Wolfpack got back in the game by creating points in transition. UConn shot only 32.4 percent in the first half but had 11 offensive rebounds and made six 3-pointers, to only three from State.
N.C. State's players got better on defense in the second half, Gottfried said, and left New York with a much-needed win.