NC State's resiliency has been tested throughout the season, but for one magical night, everything came together for 40 minutes, resulting in a emotion-charged 88-74 victory over No. 7-ranked Duke on Wednesday at the RBC Center.
NC State featured five different players in double figures, with senior power forward Dennis Horner gutting it out with a knee injury, providing leadership and some big shots to complement junior center Tracy Smith. The Wolfpack soaked in the euphoria of the upset with the fans rushing the floor in celebration.
Each of the starters playing in unison together. Each coming to NC State for different reasons and all having some kind of adversity along the way. The thrill was back at the RBC Center, and coach Sidney Lowe's red jacket will be the talk of Raleigh again.
NCSU signees Lorenzo Brown or Roswell, Ga., a combo guard, and high-scoring point guard Ryan Harrow of Douglasville, Ga., and senior targets C.J. Leslie of Raleigh, a forward, and wing Antonin Galaya of Wilson, N.C. by way of the Caribbean, were behind the team bench soaking it all in, seeing what they could be a part of.
Smith needed help, and the two players who delivered it were arguably coming off their worst game of the season last Saturday against Clemson.
Horner and point guard Javier Gonzalez were both challenged this week by Lowe after combining for two points against the Tigers, and both responded with strong performances. Horner went 8 of 15 from the field for 20 points before fouling out, earning the admiration of his teammates for playing on an injured leg.
"My senior year, last time against Duke [in the regular season], and to go out with a win is huge," said Horner, who took a couple days off to rest his surgically repaired knee this week. "I thank my teammates for that effort that they put out there. We came together as a team and got this. People played through pain and we got the win."
Smith scored a game-high 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting and played 37 out of 40 minutes. He added five rebounds and three blocks, scoring 14 points in the first half to help kick-start the Wolfpack, who improved to 13-6 overall and 2-3 in the ACC. Duke fell to 15-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference.
"The other games, it seemed like the first half, we would come out a little sluggish," Smith said. "This game, we fought for 40 minutes. We never gave up. We matched their intensity. We kept our composure. We made them play in our halfcourt set. That is what won us the game."
Gonzalez flashed the form that had many talking about how he might be in the upper half of point guards in the ACC this season. Gonzalez took control of the position, and had 15 points, eight assists and just two turnovers.
Gonzalez signature play helped put the game away. With the shot clock winding down, and Duke 6-10 sophomore center Miles Plumlee in his face, Gonzalez launched a three-pointer that swished through the net, giving the Wolfpack a commanding 77-66 lead with 3:52 left in the game. The shot punctuated that NC State was destined to win.
"I couldn't really go to the basket, and they switched a big on me, so I tried to shake him," said Gonzalez, who apologized to his teammates this week for his play of late. "He just kept backing off and I just decided to pull it. It felt good when it came out of my hands."
Fifth-year senior shooting guard Farnold Degand, who has gone through more basketball-related duress than most, added 11 points, six assists, four rebounds and just one turnover.
"Beating Duke is something you don't forget," Degand said. "It's something you can tell your kids about. I'll definitely cherish and remember it.
"It's a feeling not too many people get to experience. The fact that I'm able to experience this, I'm glad and happy to be part of NC State basketball."
Freshman small forward Scott Wood added 10 points, and showed his value by also playing 37 minutes. Lowe said Duke's defense was geared to slow down Wood, which opened it up for others.
"They decided they weren't going to help when Tracy got the ball," Lowe said. "He was patient and picked his shots well. They focused on Scott. The other guys stepped up. Javi and Dennis played great. We took advantage of what was available to us.
"You need players that can create something on their own against Duke. Javi and Farnold did that tonight."
NC State started the game, grinding it out with Duke. The Blue Devils took an early 13-8 lead with 14:07 left in the first half on a Jon Scheyer three-pointer following a Brian Zoubek offensive rebound. Duke's offense wasn't sharp, but the Blue Devils were controlling the boards. Duke ended the first half with a 20-9 rebound advantage, including 11-1 on the offensive end.
NC State started to gain steam. Degand made a slick pass to Smith for a big dunk and a 14-13 lead at the 12:44 mark, the Wolfpack's first lead of the game. Smith went on to have three straight field goals.
The Wolfpack went on a 14-5 run to open up a comfortable 29-19 lead with 6:38 left in the half, capped by back-to-back three-pointer's by Gonzalez and Horner, who both showed ample evidence early that they had put their recent struggles behind them.
Duke clawed its way back, but nothing was coming easy for the Blue Devils. Junior small forward Kyle Singler went to work and scored four points and point guard Nolan Smith rattled home a three-pointer to spark a 10-2 run to cut the lead to 31-29 with 3:20 left in the half.
NC State never panicked, with Degand calmly answering Smith's three with one of his own. Degand later drove and made a nice dish to freshman power forward Richard Howell for an easy basket, and the Pack were back in control.
Nolan Smith hit a big three-pointer right before halftime, but the Wolfpack had the lead, 41-38, and momentum going into the second half. NCSU shot 16 of 25 from the field for 64 percent, which more than offset the previously mentioned rebounding deficit.
NC State started the second half on a 11-3 run over a span of 2:45 to open up a 52-41 lead. Smith scored back-to- back buckets, and it became clear that the Blue Devils' big men, especially Zoubek, couldn't handle the 6-7 Smith inside.
"I just thought he was way slower than me, and I could just jumper over him," Smith said. "He's 7-feet tall, but that doesn't matter to me. The outcome was a foul or a score. I felt I had the hot hand and they couldn't stop me."
NC State opened the game up from there. Sophomore point guard Julius Mays hit a jumper, and Wood brought the house down with a three-pointer to extend the lead to 63-49 with 12:49 left in the game. The atmosphere of playing on the big stage is what brought Wood to Raleigh from Marion, Ind., where he played high school basketball with Mays.
"It's the cream of the crop, and if you want to be part of the cream of the crop, you have to beat them," Wood said. "It definitely can be done by anybody. You just have to put your mind to it and play hard."
From there, Horner took over, scoring six straight points including a big dunk to give the Wolfpack their largest lead of the night, 69-52 with 8:54 left.
"For him [Horner] to come out and give that kind of effort, definitely made me feel proud to be his teammate and proud to be his friend," Degand said.
The Horner dunk was the last field goal for a while for the Pack. Duke had one last run remaining, and went on a 10-1 spurt, and eventually cut the lead to 72-64 with 4:48 left. Wood ended the field goals drought that lasted 4:14 with a layup, which gave NC State a 74-64 lead, and setting up Gonzalez's impressive three-pointer that beat the shot clock.
NCSU finished the game shooting 58.2 percent from the field getting quality shots most of the time, while limiting Duke to just 38.6.
"Our defense was the worst it has been all year," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was never, ever good tonight. I don't know what that was."
Singler finished with a game-high 22 points, Scheyer grinded his way to 21 on 5 of 16 shooting, and junior guard Nolan Smith added 18.
"They were terrific and we were not very good," Krzyzewski said. "In order to beat them tonight, you had to be terrific just to have a chance. They were really good. They had great energy, a great game plan, and looked real fresh. We didn't look fresh at all, and we just couldn't match their energy. For me, that's the story."
NC State returns to action at Maryland on Saturday in College Park, Md. But first Lowe and the players will relish the victory, at least for a night or two. Smith celebrated his birthday Wednesday, while Lowe has his birthday today.
"I turn 50 tomorrow and this is one of the best birthday presents I've ever received," Lowe said. "I thanked the guys."