NC State had its first test of the young season Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Northwestern led for all but 2 minutes, 19 seconds of the game thanks to a strong performance from junior point guard Michael Thompson, who scored a team-high 22 while playing every minute in the Wildcats 65-53 victory at the RBC Center. Northwestern improved to 6-1 overall, while NC State lost for the first time to fall to 5-1.
Thompson received help from multiple players on the Wildcats. Senior guard Jeremy Nash added 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and sophomore power forward John Shurna added 11 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 40 minutes of action.
"It was a real good win for us," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "It's our first real road win. We had a tournament this past week on a neutral court, and had a couple of nice wins, but to play in a hostile environment, it's real good to get a win like this. I don't think we played particularly well, but I think they have had something to do with that. It was one of those grind it out kind of games."
Northwestern's height and multiple contributors helped offset NC State's one-two junior punch of center Tracy Smith and point guard Javier Gonzalez.
Northwestern and NC State both struggled to get into an offensive rhythm early, with the scored tied 6-6 after the first 5:06 of the game.
The Wildcats made their first surge with a 9-0 run sparked by Shurna's slam dunk and three-pointer to give NU a 15-6 lead with 10:57 left in the first half. Northwestern never relinquished the lead from that point on.
"We didn't have five guys on the floor at the start of the game that came out ready to play," NCSU coach Sidney Lowe said. "We might have had three or 2 1/2, but we didn't have five."
The Smith-Gonzalez combo kept NC State alive in the first half, otherwise, it might have gotten out of hand. Smith battled inside against 7-footer Kyle Rowley, 6-11 Luka Mirkovic and 6-8 Shurna of Northwestern. Rowley and Mirkovic combined for 10 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots at the center position.
Sometimes Smith would get his shot blocked - Northwestern finished with nine blocks for the game - but more often than not, he powered his way for two points or got fouled.
Smith scored 11 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, and finished the game going 9 of 18 from the field.
Setting up Smith for easy scores was an inspired Gonzalez. When Northwestern built its lead up to 30-18 after a Thompson three-pointer, the Wolfpack responded. Smith drew a foul and made two free throws, and then Gonzalez set up for an easy bucket. Senior power forward Dennis Horner had his only two points in the first half to cut the Wildcats' lead to 32-24. Horner finished with 11 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots.
Northwestern ended the half with a nice backdoor layup by freshman Alex Marcotullio to give the Wildcats a 34-24 lead.
"I think the game was almost a tale of two halves, for our ball club," Lowe said. "Defensively, I don't think we were very good in the first half. We weren't aggressive with our man-to-man defense. We weren't moving our feet. We allowed them to run their offense."
NC State started the second half with a purpose, and a run seemed inevitable. Northwestern still controlled the game, but NC State was slowly figuring out the Wildcats' 1-3-1 swarming defense.
Marcotullio got a technical foul for accidentally elbowing Gonzalez, and that seemed to fire up NC State. The Wolfpack went on a 6-0 run the set the crowd on fired, with Smith's dunk cutting the lead to 47-43 with 8:49 left in the game.
"We started to get upset about it," said Lowe about the Wildcats' physical play. "Instead of getting upset early, we waited until later on to get upset about it and do something about it. It got us going a little bit."
Northwestern answered, as they had all game, with Marcotullio getting open for a big three-pointer to stretch its lead to 50-43. The Wildcats needed some breathing room, but the Wolfpack weren't done charging back.
NC State's went on a mini 6-2 run with Smith scoring all six points to cut the lead to 53-49 with 5:49 remaining. NC State couldn't get any closer thanks to two big shots by Thompson.
The quick floor general hit a runner in the lane to give NU a 57-49, and then put on the finishing touches when he scored off a drive on the pick-and-roll and was fouled. The three-point play with 1:35 left helped Northwestern take a commanding 60-52 lead.
"It was a blown assignment," said Lowe about the three-point play. "We just didn't execute defensively properly. Being the player that he is, he made us pay for it.
"We put ourselves back in the game. We were right there, and needed that one stop."
Smith and Gonzalez got help from Horner in the second half, but the Wolfpack couldn't get five contributing players on the floor on offense. NCSU finished shooting 19 of 56 from the field for 33.9 percent, and had more turnovers (13) than assists (10).
"We just didn't shoot the ball well today," Lowe said.
Particularly troubling was the open looks from three-point range that wouldn't fall for the Wolfpack. NC State shot an abysmal 2 of 18 from downtown (11.1 percent), while Northwestern countered with 6 of 14 for 42.9 percent. Gonzalez hit the lone two three-pointers, while freshman Scott Wood and sophomores Julius Mays and C.J. Williams combined to go 0 of 12.
"We've been playing both defenses (man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone), and going from one to the other," Carmody said. "We're trying to have two good defenses.
"But I know I'm going to look at that tape tomorrow, and they're going to have their good shooters open, and missing. So you feel pretty good now, but I thought that they were getting some pretty good looks, and they missed them."
NC State returns to action Saturday to play its first true road game in front of a hostile crowd against Marquette in Milwaukee, Wis. The Golden Eagles are 6-1 this season, and defeated the Wolfpack 68-65 on a game-winning jumper by departed point guard Dominic James at the buzzer last year at the RBC Center.
"I told them to take this as a learning experience," Lowe said. "Playing against a team that plays hard and executes. We talked about being patient and knowing what we are doing defensively, and not allowing the best player to beat us."