NC State hosted a winless Fairleigh Dickinson team Saturday night in front of an officially announced crowd of 10,327 fans at the RBC Center in Raleigh, most of whom probably spent much of the hoops game watching the football team battle Maryland on the concourse televisions.
With few students at the arena because of Thanksgiving holiday and a pep band that appeared to number in the teens, the atmosphere was certainly lacking Saturday.
The Pack also has a crucial two-game road stretch coming up at Wisconsin and at Syracuse, perhaps causing State to peak a little bit past Fairleigh Dickinson.
All those ingredients may have added up to an at times lifeless performance from an NC State basketball squad that had to slug their way at times to a 77-67 win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
"It wasn't one of our best games obviously," head coach Sidney Lowe said. "We can't afford to come out and mess around and turn it over and not have energy. We had a couple of guys that came out with energy, but as a group I thought we were a little careless with the ball early."
Lowe spent longer than usual talking to his players in the locker room after the game. He knows a better performance will be needed against their more accomplished and talented upcoming opponents.
"The message to them was we're not good enough yet to come out like that," Lowe said. "We're not good enough to take it light on any team. We haven't done anything yet."
NC State led 39-29 at halftime thanks in large part to sophomore center DeShawn Painter. He led all scorers with 10 first half points, and sophomore center Jordan Vandenberg came off the bench to add four more points.
"I thought they both went in battling," Lowe noted.
NC State seemed to have taken control of the game with a 10-2 spurt to break open a 13-13 tie with 9:28 left in the first half. A lay-up from freshman guard Lorenzo Brown stretched the lead to 35-20 with three minutes left.
The Pack though struggled shooting in the second half, and Fairleigh Dickinson went on a 7-3 run to make it a 42-38 game with 16:25 left. That's when sophomore wing Scott Wood, who went scoreless in the first half, turned the momentum back in the Pack's favor. Wood made a trio of three-pointers to spark an 11-0 NC State run for a 53-38 Wolfpack lead.
"That's a threat to have a guy like that," Lowe said, "to get you back on a little run, which we really needed."
When senior guard Javier Gonzalez added back-to-back threes with nine minutes left, the Pack had stretched its advantage to 60-44 for State's largest lead of the game.
NC State only made six field goals in the first 14 minutes off the second half, all of them three-pointers from either Wood or Gonzalez. NC State made just 9 of 28 second half shots for 32.1 percent, and connected on only 6 of 10 free throws.
Their shooting struggles allowed Fairleigh Dickinson to stay within striking distance. The Knights, led by senior guard Terence Grier's game-high 23 points, which was also a career-high, had a 9-1 run to cut the lead to 68-61 with 48 seconds left, but Brown and freshman guard Ryan Harrow made four straight free throws to essentially ice the game.
"I think some guys thought it was in the bag", Lowe said. "I really do. As you can tell I wasn't very happy about that. We made some substitutions and got some guys off. It's never over. Winning teams finish ball games. There is no letdown. I don't care how much time is left on the clock. I don't care who is in the ballgame. They continue execute and do things the right way. That's what winning teams do."
The players head that message loud and clear following the game.
"We definitely learned a lesson," sophomore forward Richard Howell, who had eight points and eight boards in the win, said. "Definitely not to come out like that again, or like coach said, it isn't going to be pretty."
Brown led NC State with 13 points and six assists and also added five board, two steals and two blocks. Wood (12 points) and Painters (12 points) were the only other two players to score in double-digits for NC State.
NC State improves to 4-1 and will play at Wisconsin Wednesday night as part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Fairleigh Dickinson fell to 0-3.