NC State completed the first one-third of its schedule 11-2 and a national No. 23 ranking in The Associated Press poll, but it's hungry for more.
NC State found the energy and enjoyed several big highlight plays to run away from short-handed UNC Greensboro 89-68 on Monday at PNC Arena.
The combination of playing UNCG, who fell to 2-9 and were without its star player Trevis Simpson - due to a freak pregame ankle injury - plus playing on New Year's Eve in front of a smaller than normal crowd, could have led the Wolfpack to overlook the Spartans.
NC State junior power forward C.J. Leslie played aggressively early to score 12 of his team-high 21 points in the first half to lead five players in double figures. Junior point guard Lorenzo Brown played well to rack up 15 points and nine assists, senior wing Scott Wood added 15 points and three 3-pointers and senior center Richard Howell recorded 11 points and 13 boards.
"I always ask myself are we getting better, are we improving?" NCSU coach Mark Gottfried said. "Are we better today than we were Nov. 9, which I think we are. Our young guys have improved and understand a lot more of what we are doing. We are executing our offense pretty good, and defensively, we could be better, but we are better."
Brown likes how the Wolfpack played against UNCG and the overall non-conference slate in general, which only included losses to No. 22 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Michigan.
"I think we've played terrific," Brown said. "We got some big wins and had some bad losses. We played hard and got the job done."
NC State finished the non-conference slate with seven straight wins, and have scored at least 80 points in six of them. The Wolfpack are eager to open ACC action at Boston College at 4 p.m. Jan. 5.
"I wanted to be undefeated if we could," Leslie said. "I'll take it, and it's not bad at all."
Simpson came into the game averaging 20.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per contest, and shooting 35.7 percent from three-point land. He had 25 points against Wake Forest on Dec. 22, and also against Virginia Tech on Nov. 19.
The Spartans were forced to adjust on the fly without him. Freshman power forward Kayel Locke stepped up with 21 points and seven rebounds off the bench, while senior wing Derrell Armstrong added 16 points.
"When you lose a big piece, everyone has to do a little bit more to make up for it, and I thought we did a nice job as a team to make up for that," UNCG coach Wes Miller said.
NC State and UNCG trade baskets for the majority of the first half, but the Wolfpack found its groove over the last 3 1/2 minutes. NCSU went on an 8-0 run to get some breathing room thanks to back-to-back three-pointers from Wood and freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis to build a 40-32 lead and cruised into halftime up 43-36.
Leslie knew that UNCG could end up being a proverbial trap game. The veterans on the team played in Greensboro against the Spartans two years ago on New Year's Eve.
"We don't underestimate anybody," Leslie said. "At any given time, someone could come out here and jack up threes and hit 12 in a row. The most important thing is to stay focused and stay engaged."
NC State opened the second half on a devastating 17-4 run to build a commanding 60-42 lead with 13:44 left.
"We started pressuring the ball, and when we pick up our defensive intensity, it's hard for teams to score against us," Brown said.
Brown then had the dunk of the game when he smashed home a putback off a Purvis miss to send the PNC Arena crowd into a frenzy to make it 62-46 with 12:19 left.
"That was a pretty good one," Leslie said. "He came out of nowhere too. I'd probably put it in the top three. He got a little break (during the holiday's], so maybe the legs are coming back."
Brown was looking forward to watching the replay of his dunk.
"I hope that was top three," Brown said. "Rodney was just looking at me and I was like 'Good shot' even though he missed it."
NC State was able to get several dunks, including Wood on the break and Leslie did a nice reverse number.
"Lorenzo's bounce comes and goes," Purvis half-joked. "I missed that shot on purpose too.
"Scott dunks like a old man. Lorenzo is very athletic, but that is what everybody comes to see. We are a very athletic team and got the crowd going."
NC State continued to burn the nets from the field (53.3 percent) and also improved at the free-throw line (17 of 22 for 77.3 percent). Conversely, the Wolfpack put the clamps on UNCG's potent three-point shooting attack by holding the Spartans to 2 of 17 from beyond the arc.