Based on the talk Wednesday night, the big game of the week was still a few days away for N.C. State, with just about everyone in the building already looking ahead to Saturday’s visit from Duke before Georgia Tech even took the floor.
That perspective was faulty. This was the big game, the one that really mattered. And before it was over, by the time the Wolfpack pulled away late for an 83-70 win over the Yellowjackets, it felt like it.
Duke is a litmus test for N.C. State, a chance for the Wolfpack to measure itself against the top team not only in the ACC but in the country. It’s the kind of Triangle rivalry game that whips fans of both schools into a froth for days coming and going.
Georgia Tech was not. It was just another game against yet another of the teams battling for position in the ACC’s middle tier, the kind of game that gets lost in the shuffle of the season, an 8 p.m. start on a Wednesday night that doesn’t clear the bar for ESPN.
And yet this hard-fought win over Georgia Tech was by far the bigger of the two.
If N.C. State wants to win the ACC, it would help to beat Duke on Saturday. But it was absolutely imperative to beat Georgia Tech on Wednesday (and Boston College, and Clemson and Virginia Tech and the rest of the teams that aren’t going to contend for the title but will factor in who does). Just as the Wolfpack took care of business last weekend in Boston, it took care of business Wednesday at PNC Arena.
“You’re supposed to always beat the teams you’re supposed to beat,” N.C. State’s Scott Wood said. “It’s hard to win if you beat all the top teams and lose to all the bottom teams.”
That makes it sound easier than it was. Georgia Tech is a good basketball team. Not a great one, perhaps, not yet, but a good one. Brian Gregory was an unexciting hire but a smart one, a branch of the Tom Izzo coaching tree who is already recruiting well within the fertile grounds of Georgia, where there’s more than enough talent to go around.
The Yellowjackets’ two leading scorers are freshmen, forward Robert Carter and swingman Marcus Georges-Hunt, and there’s only one senior contributor, point guard Mfon Udofia. It’s a team on the rise, and one that looked at N.C. State as a statement game the same way N.C. State is looking at Duke.
Georgia Tech played like it, taking a one-point lead at halftime, playing the game at the Yellowjackets’ preferred pace, giving the Wolfpack all it could handle in front of an increasingly restless home crowd until the final five minutes, when N.C. State’s talent and experience proved decisive.
“I think they’re seasoned enough to know we have to play every night,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said of his players. “You can’t look past anybody in this conference.”
What an opportunity Saturday presents, to be the team that deals Duke its first loss. But there will be many teams that lose to Duke this year. Good teams already have, most notably Louisville. Others will as well.
Beating Duke would be great for N.C. State, but losing wouldn’t be the end of the world, either. There was no gray area with Georgia Tech: For what N.C. State wants to accomplish this season, winning was mandatory.