ATLANTA There was a stretch of brilliance early in N.C. State’s 70-57 win at Georgia Tech on Sunday.
The Wolfpack created points with its defense, scored in transition and fed forward Richard Howell (18 points) to build a 14-point lead almost 13 minutes into Sunday’s game. Then, Georgia Tech turned the game into a physical, deliberate grinder.
That was fine with N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who praised his team’s defensive effort in its fifth ACC win in the past six games.
“The difference was how we defended,” Gottfried said. “We had active hands, we really pressured the ball well, we disrupted the post-feed pass to go inside.
“For us to become a good basketball team, (our defense) has to get better for us. Tonight was a good step in that direction.”
There was also some help on the offensive end. Howell scored all 18 of his points in the first half, including 16 as the Wolfpack (21-8, 10-6 ACC) raced out to a 28-14 lead.
Junior forward C.J. Leslie picked up the scoring slack in the second half with 11 of his 13 points, none bigger than a three-point play at 6 minutes, 35 seconds to stretch the Wolfpack’s lead to 54-49. N.C. State needed a hoop and Leslie, who labored through the first half while Howell sizzled, delivered a clutch basket. Leslie took Georgia Tech freshman Robert Carter Jr. off the bounce and made a twisting shot and then made his free throw.
“We needed a basket,” Leslie said. “I stepped up when I needed to step up.”
Leslie also finished with seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks. Lorenzo Brown and Howell added three steals each. N.C. State matched its season-best with 12 steals and the Yellow Jackets finished with 15 turnovers and without a scorer in double-figures.
Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, whose teams are noted for their defensive intensity, noticed a difference between the Wolfpack’s defense from this game and the Jan. 9 win in Raleigh.
“When they are dialed in, they are pretty good,” Gregory said. “They have all the ingredients to be a good defensive team.”
Being dialed in on a consistent basis has been an issue for the Wolfpack this season and there was a lapse in the first half, which allowed the Jackets to make a 16-4 run to cut a 14-point lead to 32-30.”
“We’re a great defensive team when we want to be,” Brown said.
Five times in the second half, Georgia Tech made it a two-point game but the Wolfpack never relinquished the lead, in large part because of its defense.
“Everybody played good defense,” Leslie said. “We were moving, we were over here and over there and all over the court when we needed to be.”
After Leslie’s three-point play, N.C. State senior guard Scott Wood picked up a charge on forward Kam Holsey. Brown scored on State’s next possession to push the Wolfpack’s lead to 56-49.
Leslie drew a double team after another stop and fed guard Rodney Purvis in the lane. Purvis was fouled and knocked down both of his free throws for a 58-49 advantage and to effectively close the door on the Jackets.
With Virginia’s loss earlier Sunday, the Wolfpack moved into a fourth-place tie with the Cavaliers. N.C. State would lose any tiebreaker involving the Cavaliers because of its Jan. 29 loss at Charlottesville, Va.
Gottfried is only worried about his team with another win down and two ACC games to go.
“The bottom line is that we’ve got to take care of what we can take care of,” Gottfried said. “So, it really doesn’t matter what anybody else does.”