COLUMBUS, Ohio - COLUMBUS, Ohio San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has taken two different programs to the NCAA tournament 12 times, three of his Michigan teams made the Final Four and his Wolverines won it all in 1989.
So Fisher knows what a winner looks like in March and after N.C. State beat his San Diego State team on Friday, 79-65 in the NCAA tournament, he recognized a certain quality in the Wolfpack.
"They're playing with a togetherness you have to have to win," Fisher said.
With 22 points from forward Richard Howell, nearly a triple-double from guard Lorenzo Brown and a variety of other contributions, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack moved into a third-round matchup in the Midwest Regional with third-seeded Georgetown on Sunday.
In a free-flowing game, which the Wolfpack was called for 13 fouls 10 fewer than last Saturday's ACC tournament loss to North Carolina no one benefitted more from the style of play than Howell, who hadn't scored that many points since a career-best 25 against Morehead State in the second game of the season. Howell had 15 points, and no fouls, in the first half.
"I felt free in the first half," Howell said. "I felt like I could do anything because I didn't have any fouls."
Howell made 10 of his 12 field-goal attempts and knocked down a variety of jumpers and post shots over SDSU forward Tim Shelton. Whatever Howell didn't do, Brown (17 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) and Leslie (15 points) did the rest.
When Howell found his usual foul trouble in the second half, the Aztecs closed in on the the Pack behind Chase Tapley, who scored all of 19 his points in the second half, and Jamaal Franklin (23 points).
The Aztecs cut the Pack's lead to 57-54 on Franklin's layup with 9:18 left in the game and N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried called a timeout. Instead of letting doubt creep in, as it did in early losses to Indiana and Stanford or in the ACC tournament loss to UNC, the Pack closed the door on the Aztecs.
On the four possessions after Franklin's layup, the Wolfpack got a basket from C.J. Williams on a follow of his own miss, Brown on a runner in the lane, Leslie on a drive to the basket and DeShawn Painter on a turnaround jumper.
"That's what's so good about our team," Pack guard Alex Johnson said. "We don't have just one go-to guy, we have multiple go-to guys."
At the heart of N.C. State's late-season push, it has won five of its past six games, has been Brown, the versatile guard who has put up one big game after another in March. Brown finished with a season-high in rebounds (nine) and a career-best in minutes (40). He never came out of the game on Friday, Gottfried couldn't afford to take him out.
"I'm always his hardest critic but he was awfully good today," Gottfried said.
Brown had hoped the Pack would take advantage of the NCAA opportunity. He and Howell were watching ESPN in the hotel before the game before Howell told him to turn it off.
"They were talking about us and he told me to turn the channel because he didn't want to hear about it anymore," Brown said.
Howell's going to to have to stay away from ESPN for a day. After watching the NCAA tournament from home for the past five years, it's a problem N.C. State welcomes.