N.C. State 79, Elon 76
By Aaron Beard
RALEIGH ó If N.C. State was looking for some sort of measuring stick before opening ACC play this weekend, the Wolfpack sure got one Thursday night.
And it wasn’t pretty.
Tracy Smith scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half ó including two key baskets in the final 90 seconds ó that helped N.C. State rally past Elon 79-76, an unimpressive performance by a team that came out flat against an opponent it expected to beat soundly.
Dennis Horner scored a career-high 23 points for the Wolfpack (8-1). It trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half, didn’t push ahead for good until the final six minutes and then had to hang on until the final buzzer.
Making matters worse, the performance came against a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Southern Conference and one that managed a total of 31 points in a loss at Samford earlier this month.
Elon lost by 40 points earlier this week at Wake Forest, which plays host to N.C. State in the Wolfpack’s ACC opener Sunday.
“It was a game we should’ve won by 40,” Smith said. “If we’d have lost this game, I think it would have affected us long down the road. We came to the last timeout and said we weren’t going to lose this game, and everybody played hard with defense and rebounding and we just came out with the win.”
The Wolfpack appeared in control when Smith scored on a layup, then followed with a turnaround shot over Adam Constantine for a 73-68 lead with 45.9 seconds left. Elon (3-8) stretched out the game by putting the Wolfpack on the line and closing to within 77-75 on a 3-pointer from T.J. Douglas with 7.2 seconds left. After Smith missed two free throws that would have sealed it with 2.6 seconds left, Elon grabbed the rebound with a chance at a desperation 3-pointer for the tie.
Elon had no timeouts, forcing the Phoenix to hurry the ball ahead to Terrance Birdette, only to see time expire before he could launch the shot.
“We got away with one today,” Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said.
N.C. State had better figure things out quickly. After facing Wake Forest, N.C. State travels to Arizona and has a home game against No. 13 Florida on Jan. 3.
“What we did today,” Smith said, “we can’t take that to Wake Forest or we’re going to lose by 30.”
Lowe, in his fourth year, wasn’t interested in portraying the game as a wake-up call for his team, especially considering its history of slow starts this year.
After all, the Wolfpack hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 and hasn’t finished at .500 in ACC play under Lowe, so motivation shouldn’t be in short supply.
“We haven’t really done anything to come out playing that way,” Lowe said. “Even if you do, even if you are one of the top teams, you never look down or not give your opponents the respect they deserve.
“I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call. How many times can you get a wake-up call? Pretty soon, you’ve got to wake yourself up.”
The Phoenix had plenty of reasons to feel good about its performance. Constantine scored a career-high 26 points to go with 10 rebounds for Elon, which shot 47 percent and kept coming through with baskets that prevented the Wolfpack from pulling away on talent alone.
“We came here to get better, and we came here to be competitively tough for 40 minutes,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said. “We want more out of our program, and we want to win. So I stood in front of our guys in the locker room and said, ‘I’m proud of you. This shows you, on a national stage, how good we can be.’ So we want more. I’m proud but far from content.”
Elon, which led 37-26 late in the first half, held a 61-57 edge with 6:45 to play.
Smith’s three-point play put the Wolfpack ahead for good at 62-61 with 5:24 left. Then, after Smith helped the Wolfpack to a five-point lead in the final minute, Julius Mays helped maintain that margin by going 6-for-8 at the foul line.
N.C. State needed every one of those points.
“That was a hard-fought win for us,” Horner said. “We came out lackadaisical, maybe didn’t respect Elon, and they played their (tails) off today. We came out and we weren’t expecting that, and they gave us a game.”