NC State junior point guard Lorenzo Brown called Friday's 82-80 win over UNC Asheville a wakeup call.
Senior small forward Scott Wood said the Wolfpack's recent play won't get it done in the ACC, and that the team needs to start practicing like they play.
The No. 16-ranked Wolfpack has learned they are vulnerable and can be beaten despite the lofty preseason praise.
UNC Asheville's ability to push NC State for 40 minutes comes on the heels of the Wolfpack's embarrassing 76-56 loss to Oklahoma State last Sunday in Puerto Rico. Much was expected of this year's squad, which returned four starters from a Sweet 16 team.
NC State coach Mark Gottfried was glad the team could learn a valuable lesson with a victory rather than a loss. NC State improved to 4-1 overall on the young season.
"I learned a long time ago that I liked winning a whole lot more than losing," Gottfried said. "We are happy about that, but certainly not happy with how we played. We can play better and need to play much better."
NC State is still trying to find itself, both in leadership and having a team-wide will to win.
"We have to be better defensively, and we have to develop chemistry amongst our team," Gottfried said. "We have to develop a team spirit that is all about winning, period, nothing else. If we do that, we have a chance to be a good team. If we don't, we are just another team out there playing."
Seniors Richard Howell and Wood both made shots and plays that helped the Wolfpack win the game. Brown and C.J. Leslie have been through the battles, but are less vocal. Wood's big buckets late helped him finish with 14 points, while Leslie added 14 points and 11 boards.
"It's interesting with leadership, we all think every team has to have one leader," Gottfried said. "I don't buy that. I could go back to last year's team that went to the Sweet 16 and I don't know if there was one leader.
Howell muscled his way inside for 23 points and 15 rebounds, and was a terror on the offensive boards. He kept the Wolfpack afloat on offense, and then got some help from his teammates. Howell's layup and foul for a three-point play gave NC State a 71-69 lead with 3:06 left, and the Wolfpack never trailed again.
"Richard is emerging right now as somebody who wants to win bad," Gottfried said. "You can see it tonight with how he played. He wanted to win. That is what leaders have, a competitive spirit that you want to follow. If you don't have that competitive spirit, then no one wants to follow you and you can't be a leader.
"We are not there right now, but we have to get there. That's part of the process in building a team."
Howell said he is hoping to provide more leadership in the locker room. He told Coach Gottfried he is partly to blame for the Oklahoma State loss.
"I feel like we do need a leader and I am that person," Howell said. "I'm starting to build leadership role. I talked about that with coach and build my leadership skills up. It's something we need."
NC State turned up the intensity over the last six minutes and made its move.
"I thought in the second half we competed really hard," Gottfried said. "Richard Howell absolutely played his tail off. He competed from start to finish and he deserved to make some plays late in the game because of how hard he played."
NC State called timeout and drew up a play for Wood that worked perfectly for a three-pointer and 76-72 lead with 1:17 left.
"I thought our guys executed it as well as they could," Gottfried said. "It was a big shot, big screen and I think Calvin [Leslie] set the screen and Lorenzo made a nice pass."
Wood's three-pointer came right after UNC Asheville senior star Jeremy Atkinson missed one with 1:39 left in the game. The shot was probably the biggest "what if" for the Bulldogs, who fell to 1-5 overall.
"We let this one get away, not because of that play [Howell's three-point play after getting intentionally fouled]," said UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach, a former Wolfpack assistant coach. "We missed a couple of layups in the open field. They hurt us. We just let it get away."
The uneven play in the first 30 minutes gave the Bulldogs the opening they needed. Atkinson poured in 28 points, and sophomore shooting guard Keith Hornsby drained four three-pointers and had 23 points.
"As the game progressed and got into the second half, they smelled blood and felt like they could win," Gottfried said. "Now you are playing against a team that feels they belong, which they did. They played terrific and we didn't play well enough from our standards."
UNC Ashville scored the first six points of the game, but it's largest led of the first half was just seven points. Atkinson hit a three-pointer to make it 37-30 with 70 seconds left in the first half. The Bulldogs led 37-34 at halftime.
"Our whole goal was to make a statement in this game because of what happened last time," Brown said. "There was a lot of guys on our team that were lethargic. I don't know what was going on in many of our minds. Coach will get us right."
NC State overcame 19 turnovers and went 21 of 32 from the free-throw line for 65.6 percent.
"We were playing pretty hard, but turning the ball over," Gottfried said. "It's almost like we were trying too hard early. We were tighter than a drum and so wound up, and they were playing pretty good. We were in a grinder and that is not what we expected.
"I didn't think we came out to start the game casual. I would not pin that on our team. I think we played poorly."
NC State returns to action against No. 4-ranked Michigan on Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
"We have to pick it up come Tuesday or we are going to get killed," said Brown, who had 18 points. "Hopefully, we can get it back going come practice time Sunday."