RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State always seemed to have the answer.
The NC State men's basketball rode an impressive first half to defeat Virginia Tech 73-63 at the RBC Center on Tuesday. The Wolfpack improved to 15-7 overall and 4-4 in the ACC, while the Hokies fell to 14-9 and 5-4 in the conference.
NCSU dominated the first half 37-24 in perhaps its most impressive display of the season. The memories of past first half struggles such as the 17-point performance against Presbyterian or falling behind against Western Carolina were fleeting memories.
"For a 20-minute period, the first half of this ball game was our best," NC State coach Sidney Lowe said. "What was important was for our guys to understand where we are now and the position we're in. They came out with really good energy and that gave us the lead in the beginning."
NC State expected Virginia Tech to make a run and try to get back into the game. The Hokies didn't disappoint. The one-two freshmen punch of post players Jeff Allen and J.T. Thompson helped lead the comeback.
VT played more aggressively on defense and went hard to the basket in the second half.
"I think they made [their move] in the first five minutes of the second half," NC State center J.J. Hickson said. "That is where we needed to calm down and listen to coach, and do what we do best."
The Wolfpack were ready for the Hokies challenges. Each time VT got closer and closer, NC State responded. Most often, junior shooting guard Courtney Fells provided the clutch shots to help protect State's comfortable lead.
Three instances Fells came through with a big offensive play. Fells drilled a 3-pointer with 11:29 left in the game to stem VT's momentum and help State take a 51-37 lead.
Fells struck again with 7:40 left when freshman point guard Javier Gonzalez (career-high 11 points) found him open for a 3-pointer to extend the Wolfpack's lead to 57-48 at another critical juncture. He later added two free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point attempt to give NC State a 63-54 lead with 4:15 remaining.
"In times like that, we should have buried them," Fells said. "We shouldn't have given up the lead as much as we did. We stayed with it and I like how we fought against adversity. I think we lost focus and forgot what got us there."
Fells are starting to grow more comfortable in his role of on-court leader and his teammates expect him to make such big shots.
"He hit a couple of big shots and we needed them because we turning the ball over every time we were coming down the floor," Gonzalez said. "Those shots were big. We've been in a lot of close games, so it wasn't new to me."
If it wasn't Fells from the outside, then a claim could be made that freshman Hickson was slowly putting away the Hokies at the free-throw line. Hickson out-shot the entire VT team by going 13 of 17 from the line — the Hokies went 7 of 10. Hickson finished with a game-high 21 points, while Fells had 14.
"We have to learn how to blow teams out," Hickson said. "Even when we were up by five, they didn't really do anything to us and we just kept our head."
NC State might not have achieved the elusive goal of playing a complete 40-minute game, but progress was made.
"Our challenge was to come out with the same intensity in the second," Lowe said. "We need to remember to keep up our energy. They came out more aggressive and we didn't take it up a notch. We just kept playing the same as in the first half.
"We did do a good job of stopping the bleeding and making shots and stops when we needed to."
NC State didn't race out of the gates, but built up a 13-2 lead 7:39 into the game thanks to tough defense that forced VT into 1 for 10 shooting and three turnovers.
NC State didn't let up on the gas pedal, eventually taking a commanding 27-8 lead after senior small forward Gavin Grant got a steal and slam dunk with 5:36 left in the first half.
"We came out fired up and coach has been preaching defense," Hickson said. "We just stuck by our defensive principles and it was working for us."
NC State plays back-to-back road games against Maryland on Saturday and Boston College on Feb. 14. A split or sweep would do wonders for the Wolfpack's NCAA Tournament chances.
"It feels great to be at 4-4," Lowe said. "Who knows what's going to happen next, but it feels great to establish ourselves."