NC State executed its game plan to near-perfection in owning the paint to knock off No. 1 Duke.
Senior center Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie erupted in the second half to give No. 20 NC State a convincing 84-76 win over the previously undefeated Duke. NC State improved to 14-2 overall and 3-0 in the ACC, and play at Maryland on Wednesday.
NC State systematically controlled the action in the second half behind the one-two punch of Howell and Leslie. The athletic Leslie had 14 of his game-high 25 points after halftime, while Howell had 10 of 16 points and 14 of his game-high 18 rebounds.
"I told Richard Howell after the game that was a grown-man game," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "He controlled the backboard and he made his mind up that he was going to get every rebound.
"C.J. was unbelievable. I thought in the second half he made his mind up offensively down the stretch, he was nearly unguardable."
The game was billed as the top two teams in the ACC — and also the only two ranked league squads — and more than lived up to it. NC State was named the preseason league favorite by both the media and ACC coaches. The Wolfpack were blown out by Oklahoma State and lost at Michigan to fall back in the national rankings.
Duke rattled off wins against Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State, to climb to No. 1. The Blue Devils represented the best chance for the Wolfpack to earn a statement victory nationally until the NCAA Tournament begins.
"It means a lot to see who is best in your state," Leslie said. "This is a great win for us, our history and our school. Every person that played here and came back to watch the game was so happy. This is something they can take along with them. This brings a lot of excitement to our town."
NC State knocked off a No. 1-ranked team for the sixth time in 33 attempts, and for the first time since topping Duke on Feb. 15, 2004. The fans also got the chance to storm the court for the first time since defeating Duke at home in 2010.
"This is another stepping stone and we can use this game to get better, and take our team to the next level," Howell said. "Tonight was a great win, and we are going to enjoy it. It was crazy just going out there and hearing everybody scream for us. It's an amazing feeling."
The buildup for the game was throughout the week. Sirens went off amongst Triangle college basketball fans when Duke's 6-foot-11 senior power forward Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury against Clemson last Tuesday, and subsequently ruled out indefinitely.
Surprisingly, his absence wasn't felt in the first half with replacements Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson combining for 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks. Their effectiveness was nearly eliminated after halftime when the Wolfpack refocused their efforts on the defensive boards.
"The first thing that jumps out at me is the difference in how we rebounded in the second half," Gottfried said. "That was the overriding factor that helped us win the game. From the first half to the second half, we just did an unbelievably better job of defending them without giving them a second shot."
Howell provided the spark to start the second half with six quick points off of offensive rebounds to help the Wolfpack take a 49-41 lead. Leslie scored all 14 second-half points once Jefferson picked up his fourth foul with 14:46 remaining in the contest.
The Jefferson/Hairston combo scored just six points after halftime, and Jefferson (10 points) eventually quickly fouled out guarding Leslie with 8:07 left in the game, with the Blue Devils trailing 62-57.
NCSU freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis had a three-point play to give the Wolfpack a 67-57 lead with 7:42 left. Junior point guard Lorenzo Brown knew the game was NC State's to win.
"I felt like we weren't going to let up and this game was going to be ours," Brown said.
NC State needed Leslie to show the form that helped him earn ACC preseason player of the year, and he delivered.
"In this type of game, when it gets down to it, I want the ball," Leslie said. "Make no mistake about. I knew I had to be super aggressive in calling for the ball. Zo [Brown] and the rest of the guys did a great job of getting me the ball."
Brown orchestrated the action to the tune of 13 assists — which was every assist for the Wolfpack — to go along with 12 points. Senior wing Scott Wood added 14 points and freshman combo forward T.J. Warren chipped in with 10. The Wolfpack shot 50.8 percent from the field.
"Brown is as good as there is in the country in transition," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's just a superb guard. Their transition is really what won the game for them, and he's the reason for it."
Krzyzewski pointed out that the uniqueness of Brown and Howell proved the difference.
"He [Howell] is one of the most unique players in the country," Krzyzewski said. "He is a kid that every team would want and start, and would be so easy to play with. He rebounds the heck out of the ball."
With Howell and Leslie playing inspired basketball in the second half, and both controlling the boards, it became pick your poison for Duke's defense. The Blue Devils and star senior center Mason Plumlee (15 points, 11 rebounds) could only do so much.
"I thought Mason played great," Krzyzewski said. "I thought he played his butt off. He doesn't have his partner with him."
Duke also lost star shooting guard Seth Curry down the stretch to an ankle injury with 3:14 remaining., trailing 73-67. Curry, who had 22 points and five three-pointers, has been battling a chronic leg injury all season, but his injury Saturday was unrelated. Duke never got closer than four points in the last three minutes.
"I thought our guys accepted the challenge because we knew it wasn't going to be easy, we knew they would keep fighting and battling," Gottfried said. "It's becomes a point where mentally you just have to say, 'I'm going to get it done.' They aren't going to go away, they never do. Our guys mentally showed a lot of toughness."
Hairston and Jefferson overachieved on the offensive end to finish with 18 points and nine rebounds, but Krzyzewski said the absence of Kelly was especially felt on the defensive end.
"Howell was just a beast and they played well," Krzyzewski said. "I thought we played our butts off, but we are banged up obviously, and not just with Ryan. Ryan Kelly is one of the best defensive players in the country in position defense. He also is the guy that covers the four and corrals guys."
Curry's outside shooting carried Duke's perimeter game, which suffered with freshman wing Rasheed Sulaimon going 0 for 10 to finish with four points. Sulaimon has combined to shoot 9 for 40 over the last five games.
Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook added 17 points and seven assists, but also shot 1 of 6 from three-point land. The Wolfpack held the Blue Devils to 6 of 20 from beyond the arc.
"Our kids played with a lot of heart and their kids played with a lot heart, but they were a little bit better than we were, so congratulations to them," Krzyzewski said.
Both teams will likely be thinking about the rematch Feb. 7 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It's unknown if Kelly will be back by then.
"Kelly's a great player, but make no mistake about it, Kelly is not their team," Leslie said. "We did a good job of beating a good team. That is what it is. We got a great win and you can't take it away from us."