Short-handed and undersized, N.C. State relied on forward Abdul-Malik Abu to power past Montana on Friday in the opening round of the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Abu scored a career-high 25 points and added eight rebounds in a 85-72 win over the Grizzlies to advance in the winners’ bracket of the tournament.
The Wolfpack (3-0) will play the winner of Creighton-Washington State on Sunday.
N.C. State went into the game without forward Omer Yurtseven, who is serving a nine-game NCAA suspension to start the season, and forward Ted Kapita, who couldn’t travel with the team due to a student visa issue.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried had hoped to have wing Maverick Rowan, who traveled with the team to the tournament, but the sophomore missed his second straight game with concussion-like symptoms.
“It’s not about the guys we didn’t have,” Gottfried said. “The ones we did have were pretty good and we beat a pretty good team.”
Freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. added 21 points and sophomore guard Torin Dorn had 16 points for the Wolfpack.
Guard Walter Wright led the Grizzlies (0-3) with 22 points.
Abu scored seven points during a decisive 13-2 run midway through the second half. N.C. State forward BeeJay Anya broke a 51-51 tie with a pair of free throws at the 12:22 mark in the second half.
A drive and dunk by freshman guard Markell Johnson made it 55-51 and then Abu had a dunk, layup and three-point play Abu stretched N.C. State’s lead out to 66-55 at 8:24.
“He kind of manhandled them around the rim in the second half,” Gottfried said.
Johnson provided a spark off the bench with nine points, six assists and four steals. Johnson’s 3 at 7:08 made it 69-57 and then he hit Smith on an alley-oop on the next possession.
“My teammates were motivating me and I knew I had to step up with Maverick out,” Johnson said.
Senior guard Terry Henderson was N.C. State’s leading scorer in the first two games of the season but he struggled on Friday. Henderson missed his first five 3-pointers and was held to eight points.
Montana led 40-38 at the half with 14 points from Wright. The senior had scored a total of four points in the first two games of the season but made five of his nine field goals in the first half.
But N.C. State’s defense figured out how to cut off Wright’s path to the basket on defense and take advantage of Abu down low on the other end.
“It’s like ‘Coach G’ always says, you have to fix your mistakes from the first half in the second half,” Abu said. “That’s what we did.”