It almost happened again.
A year after losing its season-opener to William & Mary, N.C. State almost lost to Georgia Southern.
Almost but senior guard Terry Henderson wouldn’t let it happen. Henderson scored 23 points to lift the Wolfpack to a 81-79 win over the Eagles on Friday night.
It wasn’t supposed to be this close, not with a healthy Henderson, who was injured minutes into the opener last year, and with the debut of freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. but Georgia Southern led by as many as six points in the second half and kept pushing until the final buzzer.
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The 85-68 home loss to the Tribe crossed the N.C. State’s players minds more than once on Friday night.
“I was just thinking, we’re not letting that happen again,” junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu said. “That’s the difference between where we are now. A year ago we lost the first game and that kind of set the tone for the whole season.”
N.C. State lost the opener, lost Henderson and finished the season with a losing record (16-17) for the first time in coach Mark Gottfried’s tenure.
Henderson and sophomore guard Torin Dorn (12 points, 11 rebounds) made sure there wasn’t a repeat.
A layup by sophomore Dorn, after he drove the length of the floor after his own defensive rebound, gave N.C. State the lead for good, 68-67 with 3:47 left in the game. Henderson made six free throws down the stretch to finally put the game away.
“We were back against the wall and instincts just kicked in,” Dorn said. “We all made key plays down the stretch to win and I think that’s what we needed.”
Henderson tore the ligaments in his right ankle 7 minutes into last year’s opener. He didn’t play again for the rest of the season. He came out on fire on Friday, making a pair of early 3-pointers and blocking a shot.
While Smith Jr. struggled in his college debut, with 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting, it was Henderson who provided the steady hand.
“He brings big leadership, big-time leadership,” Abu said. “We needed that.”
Yes, the Wolfpack did. Georgia Southern, with all five starters back from a team that went 10-10 in Sun Belt play last season, never went away after falling behind by 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the game.
The Eagles cut N.C. State’s lead to one point at the half (37-36) and then traded baskets with the Wolfpack throughout the second half and led by as many as six points.
Sophomore guard Ike Smith scored 20 points and was aggressive in taking N.C. State sophomore Maverick Rowan off the dribble. Forward Shawn O’Connell (seven rebounds) was relentless inside and guard Tookie Brown had a game-high 26 points.
N.C. State had a scare early in the second half when Smith Jr. left the court after it got kneed in his left thigh on a baseline drive.
The Wolfpack made an 8-2 push without Smith on the floor and took a 54-51 lead but the Eagles kept coming.
A dunk by O’Connell and then four straight points by Brown gave the Eagles a 63-58 lead with 7:18 left in the game. Their lead peaked at 66-60 at 6:26 after a take by Brown.
Smith returned and N.C. State started to get the ball to the basket and to the foul line. The Wolfpack started 4 of 7 from the 3-point line but missed its last 17 attempts.
Smith made a pair of free throws and then had a drive to the basket, which Rowan (17 points) tipped in to tie the score at 66.
A pair of free throws by Henderson gave N.C. State a 75-71 lead at 1:12 and Smith extended it to 77-71 on the Wolfpack’s next possession. The Eagles made a pair of 3s in the final 23 seconds.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was actually encouraged by the close call.
“Good game for us,” Gottfried said. “This was a good thing for us tonight. I like it for our team.”
After losing games like this in other seasons — N.C. Central in 2013 and Wofford in 2015 come to mind — the Wolfpack got both a close call and a win.