There’s a difference between playing tough games and winning them.
Thanks to a big second-half comeback, N.C. State accomplished both Tuesday night.
Junior guard Trevor Lacey helped N.C. State erase an 18-point deficit to lead the Wolfpack to a 73-65 win against Louisiana Tech.
Louisiana Tech was the latest tough test on N.C. State’s schedule. The Wolfpack had already dropped close games to Purdue and Wofford in December and lost by 14 to West Virginia on Saturday in New York.
But Tuesday’s game ended differently. The Wolfpack (10-3) got 11 points and 10 rebounds from sophomore forward Kyle Washington and made 15 of its 18 second-half free throws to put away the Bulldogs (8-4).
“We love these games,” Washington said. “If you want to do great things – Final Fours, Elite Eights – all of those are going to be tough games.”
The Bulldogs looked too tough for N.C. State for most of the game. They got 18 points each from guards Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby and led 50-32 with 14 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the second half.
Washington jump-started an 18-2 run, which saw Louisiana Tech’s lead shrink to 52-50 after a layup by Cat Barber with 9:46 to play.
Louisiana Tech, a veteran team with 56 wins in the previous two seasons, responded by extending its lead to 58-52. That’s when N.C. State showed its true character, coach Mark Gottfried said.
The Wolfpack responded with important baskets from Barber, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, and then a three-point play from Lacey gave N.C. State its first lead, 62-60, with 4:25 to go.
On the next possession, Barber fed Abdul-Malik Abu for a two-handed dunk after knifing through Louisiana Tech’s pressure to put the Bulldogs in the rearview mirror for good.
“To me that’s a character win,” Gottfried said. “It’s a sign of great character in a team. I’m not sure you can make a great comeback like we did without great character.”
Character and some important free throws. N.C. State has struggled from the free-throw line all season, including a miserable 21-of-35 effort in Saturday’s 83-69 loss to West Virginia.
But Lacey went 6-of-7 from the line in the second half and Barber was 3-of-4. Gottfried joked that he found a way to solve his team’s free-throw problems.
“I sprinkled some magic free-throw dust on our team,” Gottfried said. “I can’t run out of it, I don’t have a whole lot if it. I just have a small amount.”
For a change it was the other team that missed from the free-throw line down the stretch. Louisiana Tech forward Erik McCree was 2-of-7 in the second half, including 2-of-4 as the Bulldogs fought to cut into N.C. State’s lead in the final 3 minutes.
After joking about magic dust, Gottfried was reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz” when he explained the real reason for his team’s success at the line.
“We had courage,” Gottfried said. “Step up there with courage, that’s what I told our guys. You’ve got to have some courage and say, ‘I’m making them.’ ”
Courage, character, free throws, a double-digit comeback, however it happened, N.C. State couldn’t afford to drop its third game in four tries.
“We didn’t want to go home on Christmas break with a loss,” Lacey said.
With Washington and Barber helping Lacey, the Wolfpack didn’t have to.