All the ingredients were there, more than usual, even. Long before the game started, the fans were at the arena early in the morning for ESPN’s “College GameDay.” In the ensuing hours, the excitement only continued to build.
You could even say it had been building for almost six years, since the last time N.C. State beat North Carolina, or for four months since Dexter Strickland decided to give the Wolfpack all the fuel it ever needed, as if any was against the Tar Heels.
The Wolfpack loves the spotlight. It struggles in the shadows. GameDay? Come back any time you like – or better yet, meet the Wolfpack at, say, Clemson or Georgia Tech.
“Maybe we should invite them over some more,” N.C. State’s Scott Wood said. “I’ll send them a nice email to see if we can get them back sometime.”
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It was a big game, and N.C. State always plays its best in big games. That was the case last year. It has proven the case this year. It’s hard to imagine a bigger game than this and it’s hard to imagine the Wolfpack playing any better than it did in Saturday’s 91-83 win over North Carolina, in the first half at least.
That’s an old story, though. It’s easy to get up for the big games like this one. The challenge for the Wolfpack going forward is to figure out how to play like this in half-empty arenas and on weeknight 9 p.m. tips. The challenge for the Wolfpack is to play the way it did in the first half in the second half as well, when it let the Tar Heels creep within single digits late and had to seal the win at the free-throw line.
“I’m definitely not making excuses,” N.C. State forward Richard Howell said. “We know we have to come out a lot better than that. That’s one of the reason we were so anxious to get on the court today.”
It doesn’t get any better in terms of stakes or atmosphere than the past two weeks: the visit to PNC Arena of No. 1 Duke and Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels. This is what ACC basketball is all about. The energy in the building for both games could shock a hoops fan out of a coma. N.C. State has thrived in these situations, and did Saturday.
The first half was a seemingly endless succession of North Carolina turnovers and N.C. State dunks, with C.J. Leslie’s tomahawk in the face of Jackson Simmons ensuring Simmons a place in rivalry lore forever and ever.
That’s N.C. State at its best, running and gunning, playing with reckless abandon. And it came only three days after the Wolfpack imploded at Wake Forest, giving up 51 points in the second half. N.C. State will never be the team it wants to be – this team, the one that beat North Carolina at its own game Saturday – as long as it sleepwalks through games like that.
Even in the second half Saturday, N.C. State let what was once a 28-point lead slip to five with less than a minute left, desperately clinging to a win it thought was long ago assured.
“The first half was the real State,” N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown said. “The second half, I don’t know what we did. If we can get two halves, we would be great.”
When N.C. State plays the way the Wolfpack can at its best, the sky’s the limit. Without that same focus, a hard fall may lie ahead.