Lorenzo Brown wouldn’t say who called him Wednesday night and challenged him to play better defense, only that it was a “good friend,” someone who believed Brown was a good defender despite what “people were saying.”
Given that friendly challenge, what better platform to tackle it than taking on Virginia Tech’s Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer and the ACC player of the year.
“I just felt like it was the perfect timing, to try and contain him the best way I could,” Brown said.
Contain would be one way to put it. Brown limited Green to 15 points, 10 below his average, on 5-for-19 shooting, as N.C. State advanced to face fourth-seeded Virginia in Friday’s quarterfinals with an 80-63 win.
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At one point in the second half, after Green had the ball knocked away from him in the lane, he looked pleadingly to the officials. No help was forthcoming, not with Brown in his face. It was a team effort, but it started with Brown.
“Everybody was in the gaps,” Green said. “When I penetrated they were right there, and even in transition I was seeing two or three players back there waiting for me.”
The subtext to Brown’s lockdown defense on Green is that he was physically capable of doing it. When the two teams played a month ago, it was only Brown’s second game after returning from a left ankle injury. Green hung 29 points on N.C. State in an overtime Va. Tech loss and tacked on eight assists in a performance that significantly bolstered his honors campaign.
There would be no repeat performance, and Brown made it clear from the start – sore left ankle, taped-up right thumb, whatever. He said Wednesday his ankle bothers him more on defense than offense, but it didn’t look that way against Green.
“I feel a lot better now,” Brown said. “I was kind of struggling when I came back because it was still swollen, still hurting. I definitely feel better now. I’d give it like a 90, 95 percent.”
Brown scored only nine points Thursday, but he also had a school tournament-record 12 assists against only two turnovers after turning the ball over seven times in the regular-season ending loss at Florida State. Between his distribution and his defense, it was hard to find anything wrong with Brown’s game.
“He’s been really good on a lot of nights, but when you play against a guy like Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer, that’s going to take some energy,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “He spent some energy doing that defensively.”
Only Brown knows how much the ankle has hampered him over the past month, but his teammates have seen him struggle at times. They see it less now than before, which is only good news for the Wolfpack.
“I definitely wouldn’t say he’s 100 percent, because I’ve seen how he can play at 100 percent,” N.C. State forward Richard Howell said. “I’d say he’s close. He’s definitely getting there, and the more he gets there, the more exciting it gets for us.”
If Brown had something to prove against Virginia Tech, he may have even more to prove against Virginia. His teammates certainly do. The Wolfpack lost by three in Charlottesville on Jan. 29 after Brown hurt the ankle in the first half, the beginning of a three-game losing streak that cost N.C. State its last shot at the ACC regular-season title.
They’ll have him Friday, maybe not 100 percent, but 90 or 95 percent looks like it may be close enough.