Four quick takeaways from N.C. State’s 84-82 win at Duke on Monday night in Durham:
1) Pay that man his money
N.C. State freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. came into the season projected as one of the top picks in the NBA draft. Smith has been good but he did not play like this before, completely taking over a game and willing N.C. State to a win.
Smith controlled the game and carried N.C. State (14-7, 3-5 ACC) when it got behind by eight points in the second half and made all the plays down the stretch to push the Wolfpack to its first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995.
Smith finished with 32 points and six assists. He outshone fellow future NBAers Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles in the process.
It has been Smith with the target on his back all season and other teams have used him as the measuring stick. Boston College, with a pair of guards from North Carolina, immediately comes to mind as an example of this. Smith embraced the challenge of competing against Duke and Tatum and took the game over.
Smith also showed an eagerness to make up for a subpar outing at UNC on Jan. 8 when N.C. State lost by 51 points.
Smith was so good, after one Cameron Crazie taunted the Wolfpack guard in the second half and said, “You (stink) Smith.” The same fan turned around to his friend and said, “He really doesn’t.”
2) Kapita from out of nowhere
Freshman forward Ted Kapita had four points in the first seven ACC games and didn’t get off the bench in the past two games. Just when it looked like Kapita, who had 17 points and eight rebounds in his first college game, might not be a factor the rest of the season, he turns in a 14-point, 10-rebound performance in 19 minutes.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski likes to call physical games like this “a man’s game” and Kapita was a man out there for State, especially with Duke going with freshmen bigs Marques Bolden and Giles for extended minutes.
Kapita and junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu (19 points, nine rebounds) gave the Wolfpack the kind of production it needs from its frontcourt.
Abu, in particular, delivered down the stretch while Duke over-committed defensively to Smith.
3) Duke trouble from 3
N.C. State’s defense will never be great but it was good enough on Monday and its matchup zone, in particular, gave Duke some issues. The Blue Devils are normally a 3-point heavy team but with Tatum going to the basket (16 points, nine rebounds) and Luke Kennard getting more going to the basket (20 points, 8 of 10 from the foul line), N.C. State’s zone cut off the middle of the court.
Normally, Duke will make you pay for giving them open looks from 3 but the Devils were 8 of 28 from the 3-point line. In last year’s 88-80 win in Durham, Kennard was 6 of 11 from 3. Grayson Allen was 4 of 9 from 3 in the Devils’ 92-89 ACC tournament win in Washington last year.
Kennard and Allen were a combined 3 of 14 on Monday. N.C. State wasn’t much better from 3 (6 of 16) but Maverick Rowan made a big 3 with 1:57 left to push the Wolfpack margin to 77-73.
4) The “Law of the Wolfpack”
Here’s the thing about N.C. State, that’s really kind of hard to argue at this point: When you expect more, you get less and when you expect less, you get more.
After losing to Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, you couldn’t have expected less from the Wolfpack. And all of the hope that was there at the beginning of the season, pinned to Smith’s immense talent, was nearly all lost.
But just when you expect nothing, that’s when N.C. State delivers. There’s a chance that Duke’s not very good at defense and has some hierarchy problems (who’s in charge? Tatum? Kennard? Allen?) that cost them down the stretch. There’s also a chance this could turn into something big for N.C. State.
Either way, N.C. State will take confidence from this performance and hope, like the win at Louisville in 2015, it can turn one big win into something more.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio