NC State has struggled in the first half the last four games, but the Wolfpack players couldn't come up with a detailed reason for coming out flat against Elon on Thursday at the RBC Center.
NC State rallied from a six-point halftime deficit to come through with a 79-76 victory over Elon in front of 12,892 fans at the RBC Center. NCSU improved to 8-1 overall and open the ACC schedule at Wake Forest on Sunday. Elon fell to 3-8 overall.
The Wolfpack trailed by as much as nine points in the first half, but cut the deficit behind a strong late flurry by senior power forward Dennis Horner. Junior center Tracy Smith got going in the second half, and both proved too tough to stop down the stretch. Horner scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Smith added 21 and eight boards for the Wolfpack. No other player scored more than seven points.
"We came in knowing we were going to beat them by like 40 or 50," Smith said. "They played hard and hit us first. It was hard for us to get back in the game."
NC State coach Sidney Lowe noticed before the game that his youthful team didn't have the right mindset about playing Elon. Horner agreed with his coach.
"Maybe we weren't respecting Elon as much as a team," Horner said. "We thought we could come in here and get an easy win. That wasn't the case today. Elon played really well and gave us a scare."
Lowe knows that NC State could have easily been upset without the strong one-two punch of Horner and Smith delivering plays down the stretch.
"I think we got away with one today," Lowe said. "They definitely out-played us in the first half. We finally got it together and came back in the second half. We were really fortunate to get away with this one because they had way more energy than we did."
NC State struggled with its intensity level in the first half, and Elon took advantage. Elon junior Chris Long hit back-to-back three-pointers to give the Phoenix a 15-7 lead. The early cushion helped Elon hits its stride. Senior guard Devan Carter hit two three-pointers, and center Adam Constantine and then Daniel Watts hit a basket apiece to help the Phoenix go on a 10-5 run to take a 27-19 lead.
The solid play from Constantine, who attended Raleigh Enloe High, helped Elon maintain its lead, 33-24 with 3:50 left in the first half.
NC State needed a spark and Horner and freshman center DeShawn Painter helped supply it for the Wolfpack. Horner scored seven of his 14-first half points down the stretch, to cut Elon's lead to 39-33 by halftime. Painter added six points in 12 minutes of action in the half, which was the most extended playing time he has had in an opening half.
"In the locker room at halftime, he [Lowe] was just mad," Smith said. "Our goal was to keep them to 25 points in the first half, and they had 39. He was hot about that. They shot a sky-high field-goal percentage. We weren't playing any defense. He told us if we go out there and play like we did in the first half, we are going to lose the ball game."
Elon used nine first-half offensive rebounds to help them shoot 16 of 34 from the floor for 47.1 percent. Constantine had 14 points and six rebounds en route to 26 and 10, giving Smith all he could handle in the paint. Carter scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half, and Long added eight of his game-high 11 assists before halftime.
Horner called NC State's defense "pathetic" in the first half. Without Horner's big half, the score could have been worse at halftime.
"We were giving them open shots and they were able to get into the lane," Horner said. "The big guy [Constantine] was finishing and had a [heck] of a game. Someone had to come out and make plays, and that's what I did."
Constantine was able to give Smith fits in the paint. Lowe said Smith shouldn't have allowed him get deep position on the block.
"He really surprised me and is a strong, aggressive player," Smith said. "He kneed me in the first half, and I really couldn't get going because leg hurt [right thigh] real bad. Every time he posted, he'd bang right into it."
NC State was able evaporate Elon's first half lead - and solid first half play - in 75 seconds. Sophomore shooting guard C.J. Williams and freshman small forward Scott Wood both scored their first baskets of the game on aggressive drives into the lane, and the two buckets sandwiched Javier Gonzalez's first points of the game, a three-pointer, that rolled in. NC State was able to take a 40-39 lead with 18:15 left in the game thanks to the 7-0 spurt.
Elon eventually responded to NC State's flurry, with a little 5-0 run of its own. Guard Terrance Birdette hit a layup and then a big three-pointer with 10:31 left in the game to give the Phoenix a 54-49 lead.
Horner wasn't going to let NC State lose, and had a signature moment where he came out of nowhere twice to make something happen. First, he grabbed an impressive offensive rebound off a Painter miss, and drove in for the layup and a foul. He missed the rebound, but freshman teammate Richard Howell kept it alive and Horner dove toward the rim to get the ball and make the ensuing layup to give the Wolfpack a 55-54 lead with 9:13 left.
NC State had the momentum back, but it was fleeting. Elon's T.J. Douglas hit a big three-pointer to give the Phoenix the lead back, 57-55 with 8:48 left. Constantine then hit a jumper to send the lead to four points. That is where Smith started to come alive.
"I just looked at the scoreboard and I thought we couldn't lose this game," Smith said. "It's a game we should have won by 40. If we lost this game, I think it would affect us going down the road."
Smith scored seven points and freshman small forward Josh Davis chipped in four points to spur a 14-4 run to give NC State a 69-63 lead with 2:48 left in the game.
"They stunned us in the first half and caught us by surprise," Davis said. "I'm not sure, but the energy just wasn't there. We just have to pick up the energy from now on."
Elon was on the ropes, but had one final run left, aided by shaky NCSU free-throw shooting. Sophomore point guard Julius Mays split a pair of free throws twice in the final 34 seconds, and Douglas hit a three-pointer to capitalize, cutting NC State's lead to 77-75 with eight seconds left.
Mays knocked down two free throws with six seconds left to give the Wolfpack a 79-76 lead, but Smith missed two free throws with three seconds remaining. However, Elon couldn't get a shot off in the final seconds.
Lowe was able to breath a big sigh of relief when the final horn sounded. He also made sure to address the team and let them know that they might be 8-1, but they haven't accomplished anything yet.
"We haven't done anything to look at an opponent that way," said Lowe about the poor mindset his players had coming into the game. "Even if you are one of the top teams, you never look down or not give your opponents the respect you deserve."
NC State struggled at the free-throw line, going 14 of 23 for 60.9 percent, and also only went 3 for 14 from three-point range for 21.4.
"Their record is certainly no indication, I'm telling you," Lowe said. "They execute well, they shoot the ball well, they cut hard, they cover, they read and are smart. They are tough."