NC State's freshmen are getting a great education on tournament basketball from the ACC Tournament and National Invitation Tournament.
Freshman small forward Scott Wood has started every game this season, and reserve power forward Richard Howell has taken on a larger role down the stretch backing up senior Dennis Horner.
The duo connected on the game-winning play in Tuesday's 58-57 victory over South Florida in Tampa, Fla., in the first round of the NIT. The Wolfpack will play its second-round game at UAB on Saturday.
Wood tracked down a long pass into the Wolfpack's backcourt, and had the savvy to keep his head up and find Howell all alone for the eventual game-winning basket with eight seconds left. Howell also felt the pressure of having to go to the free throw line with the game in the balance, when he split a pair of free throws that gave NC State a 56-55 lead with 50 seconds left.
Howell and Wood were the only two freshmen out of the five-man class to play against the Bulls. Wood went scoreless on three shots, but added seven rebounds in 24 minutes played. Howell came of the bench and scored all nine of his points in the second half. He went 4 of 5 from the field, and added four rebounds and a block in 14 minutes.
Howell said learning to play in close games - the last four contests have been decided by just 12 points - will pay off next year.
"It's a learning experience to take care of the ball and make the right decisions down the stretch," Howell said. "We know how it feels now to get this close to an ACC championship. Every possession counts, especially in the ACC Tournament, and also in the NIT. We are definitely learning from our mistakes. It wasn't the lack of effort [losing to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament], but the ball wasn't falling."
NC State coach Sidney Lowe views the NIT as a great reward, and it's also an invaluable tool for his younger players.
"This is a great positive," Lowe said. "These guys in there knowing they are coming back after a nice little run in the [ACC] Tournament, and at the end of the season, and I think they are understanding how we have to play to win. The things you can do to win games, and the things you can do to lose games."
Wood, Howell and 7-1 backup center Jordan Vandenberg all played against Clemson in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Howell played a crucial role with nine points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes played, and made all four of his shots in the 59-57 victory over the Tigers March 11 in Greensboro, N.C.
Wood added six points by making both of his three-points attempts, and Vandenberg played just two minutes against Clemson.
Wood enjoyed his second breakout game against Florida State in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals March 12. He busted out by going 6 of 10 from three-point land for 18 points in 31 minutes in leading the Wolfpack to a 58-52 upset victory. Howell added two points and three rebounds in 10 minutes, and Vandenberg had a rebound and steal in five minutes.
Wood played a team-high 36 minutes in the semifinals against Georgia Tech. He went 2 of 5 from beyond the arc en route to nine points in the 57-54 loss to the Yellow Jackets. Howell added two points and six rebounds in 12 minutes, while Vandenberg played 10 minutes and went scoreless.
Wood has enjoyed playing on the big stage.
"This has definitely opened our eyes a lot," Wood said. "I feel bad for [seniors] Farnold [Degand] and Dennis, who don't get this opportunity back. You don't realize the opportunity is gone until your senior year. The freshmen and sophomores are going to come back hard no matter what. We want to definitely get a couple of ACC Tournament wins [in the future]."
Neither 6-9 power forward DeShawn Painter or 6-7 small forward Josh Davis have played in the tournament games. However, Painter said he's still learning while watching the action from the bench. He knows his time will come in the future when he'll be counted upon in big games.
"You learn about the atmosphere," Painter said. "People's futures are on the line whether they [coaches] make the tournament or not. You have to come ready and be really focused, and willing to work hard. Everybody is 0-0 when you come into the ACC Tournament. We made a run, but we didn't see it all the way through.
"We have a pretty good team, so we'll be real good in the future. We just have to keep working. We've shown we can be good."