RALEIGH -- From where he stood, surrounded on the court by jubilant students, Richard Howell could almost see four years into the past. He came to N.C. State in anticipation of moments like this. If it took almost his entire career to get to this point, he wasnt complaining.
I definitely wanted to be a part of this -- this rivalry, mix it up a bit, the senior forward said. It definitely took time to get here but patience pays off. Its definitely working now. It was crazy. My ears were about to pop out.
Howell ranked Saturdays 84-76 win over No. 1 and previously undefeated Duke ahead of last springs NCAA run because of the raucous home-court atmosphere, and as the fans hoisted Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie on their shoulders in a moment of pure joy it was hard to argue. It was pandemonium as the students danced on the floor, one even knocked from his wheelchair only to be rescued by Leslie amid the chaos.
Those same fans will be criticized for storming the court at all, that a top-25 team picked to win its conference should expect to win like this. Many of those fans would rightly argue that theyve waited even longer than Howell for an excuse to celebrate, and handing a Triangle rival its first loss helps make up for the hours and hours of bad basketball theyve been subjected to in recent years.
Or maybe they earned the right to rush, given their contribution to the environment. This was one of the most hotly anticipated matchups of the ACC season, certainly the first of them on the schedule, and PNC Arena was suitably electric. With students lined up outside before sunrise and celebrities (Scotty McCreery), political heavyweights (Robert Gibbs) and superstar athletes (Mario Williams) in the building, it felt like a title fight -- minus the fur coats.
Still, even the most fervid Wolfpack fan would have to listen to Scott Wood, another long-suffering senior, when he acknowledged the win wasnt quite what it would have been if Duke had Ryan Kelly available.
Its tough, because theyre not 100 percent, Wood said. (Seth) Currys a little beat up, Kellys beat up, so its tough to say its the best win. But obviously, ranking-wise itll be up there, and if we want to finish No. 1 in the ACC we have to go through Duke. Its a huge win, but at the same time Id like to play them 100 percent.
Kellys absence hurt Duke defending N.C. State in transition, because of his ability to cover more ground than Dukes substitute big men, and it changed the dynamic inside, where C.J. Leslie dominated offensively and Howell took over in the second half on the boards.
Its hard not to look ahead to the rematch in Durham on February 7, when the Blue Devils may or may not have Kelly back, and the ACC title may or may not be hanging in the balance.
Whoever we have, we have to win, Duke forward Mason Plumlee said. We cant make any excuses. We dont know when were going to get Ryan back. It could be weeks, it could be a month, we dont know. We cant even let that thought in.
Howell wasnt too worried about that part of it. With or without Kelly, there havent been many big wins like this in Howells career, and the clock is ticking.
Like I told them when we went into the locker room, this is just a stepping stone for us, Howell said. We have a long way to go. Each game counts the same. Were not satisfied.
But hell savor this one, from the buzz during warm-ups to the chaos afterward, and just hope its the first of many for the Wolfpack.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947