RALEIGH -- North Carolina State went from midseason struggles to finishing strong and returning to the postseason for the first time in three years. That should give coach Sidney Lowe some needed momentum heading into his fifth season.
"I thought we'd been playing hard all year," Lowe said. "But what you're seeing now is confidence. There's more confidence, and confidence exudes toughness. We look like we're tougher now."
The Wolfpack (20-16) won three of four to close the regular season, then made a surprise run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals. That sent N.C. State on to the NIT -- where it reached the second round before falling at UAB -- for the first time since Lowe's first season with the program he led to a national championship as a player in 1983.
Lowe was already feeling optimistic about next season before Saturday's UAB loss. Second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference performer Tracy Smith will lead an experienced group of returnees that includes starters Javi Gonzalez and Scott Wood, and key reserves Richard Howell and C.J. Williams. Meanwhile, Lowe has a pair of touted recruits in Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow, a point guard who could help the Wolfpack at a position that has been shaky in recent years.
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"There was certainly a time when we were struggling a little bit and I know (the recruits) were thinking, 'We have to come in and change this,'" Lowe said. "And now they're seeing they're going to have some help and that's got to be a relief for them, to say, 'All we have to do is come in and help, contribute and do our thing.'"
Lowe will lose seniors Dennis Horner -- the only incoming freshman from Lowe's first year -- and Farnold Degand.
"We went through a stretch during the middle of the season where we weren't playing too well, but the guys never quit," Horner told reporters after the UAB loss. "It's a great group of guys, unselfish, but I'm going to miss them next year."
The midseason highlight was an upset of highly ranked Duke in January, one of three league wins that came against ranked teams. But the Wolfpack lost seven straight ACC games from there, including a pair to struggling rival North Carolina, to send N.C. State sinking down the standings.
But Lowe said the team remained upbeat in practice and kept working until it finally broke through by beating Wake Forest. He's hoping the Wolfpack's run changes perceptions about a program that has yet to finish in the upper half of the ACC standings under Lowe.
"I've heard a lot of positive things from the media about these guys and how hard they play," Lowe said. "Some of you guys that have been around us all year, you've seen the growth in this program. And that's what we're trying to do. We're getting the players in that we need to get in, and these guys are setting the tone."