Pack comeback falls short

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2006

By Joedy McCreary

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Ronald Steele came back for Alabama. Pesky North Carolina State nearly came back against the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide.

The preseason All-America guard scored 14 points in his return to the starting lineup, but his nagging injuries prevented him from taking control when Alabama needed him most.

As a result, the Crimson Tide nearly blew a 23-point lead before holding on for an 82-75 victory over the upset-minded Wolfpack on Wednesday night.

“Without Ron Steele being able to take the game over at the end, he’s not there health-wise,” Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. “We made a lot of errors. We lost our poise a couple of times. … Defensively, we were so worried about fouling them that we just quit guarding them.”

Richard Hendrix led the Tide with 23 points and 12 rebounds. Mykal Riley had 17 points and Jermerio Davidson and Alonzo Gee each added 10 for Alabama (10-1), which never trailed but found itself in deep trouble in the final moments.

“We kind of sensed (a comeback) was going to happen because they were at home, they were going to start making shots and we didn’t do a good job at the end of the game,” Steele said. “They did what they were supposed to do at the end of the game. We didn’t.”

N.C. State (7-3) spent much of the second half trailing by double figures, but even when the deficit reached 63-40, first-year coach Sidney Lowe wasn’t about to give up.

“I really never thought we were out of it,” Lowe said.

The Wolfpack players started believing, too.

Behind Brandon Costner, N.C. state began a furious, last-gasp rally. Costner hit three 3-pointers in the final minute, and his 3 from the left corner made it 81-75 with 21 seconds remaining.

“Felt like anything I put up was going to go in,” Costner said.

But Alabama came up with stops on consecutive possessions. Riley stripped Costner as he attempted another 3 and seconds later the Tide forcing Costner into a second turnover to avoid what would have been a catastrophic collapse.

“I believe if I would have made that last shot that I got stripped on, we probably would have pulled it out,” Costner said.

Steele missed two games and played only 4 minutes of a third while battling a sprained right ankle and tendinitis in his left knee. His status for this game was in question until shortly before tipoff.

Steele, who said he was about 75 percent healthy, appeared a step slow and was rarely a threat to drive the lane. But there wasn’t much wrong with his touch from long range — most of his points came on 3-pointers as he finished 4-of-6 from beyond the arc.

“It just feels good to be out there playing, finally,” Steele said. “I’m not able to really get into the lane, or create as much, so I have to rely on my jump shot.”

Costner had 25 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, while Ben McCauley added 24 points and Courtney Fells had 14 for N.C. State, which didn’t have the size underneath to match up with the 265-pound Hendrix or the 6-foot-10 Davidson.

“Me and Ben don’t have any size, and when you have good players like that, you want to be aggressive on defense,” Costner said. “We’re forced not to be as aggressive as we could be on D, and that kind of makes us suffer a little bit.”

Hendrix had a near-perfect shooting night, making nine of his 13 shots from the field and hitting five of six free throws. His presence underneath was a big reason why Alabama had a 43-32 rebounding advantage and N.C. State was outrebounded for the fourth time in five games.

“Once I saw that I could score down low, (the guards) kept feeding it to me,” Hendrix said.

Depth was again a problem for the Wolfpack, who played fewer than eight players for the sixth straight game. Point guard Engin Atsur sat out his fifth straight game with an injured hamstring.

“They’re playing without their guard, Atsur, and don’t have much depth,” Gottfried said, “and they never quit and just kept coming.”