GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Richard Howell kept attacking the rim and the boards alongside C.J. Leslie, while Lorenzo Brown was the transition-powering point guard eager to take on a tough defensive assignment against the Atlantic Coast Conference’s player of the year.
It was the kind of performance that illustrated exactly why North Carolina State can thrive in March after an inconsistent regular season.
Howell scored 22 points with 12 rebounds while Brown led the defensive effort on Erick Green to help the Wolfpack beat Virginia Tech 80-63 in Thursday’s first round of the ACC tournament.
Leslie scored 15 points for the fifth-seeded Wolfpack (23-9), who shot 52.8 percent (28 of 53) and took control with an 11-0 second-half run. N.C. State led by 17 points after that spurt and never let the 12th-seeded Hokies (13-19) get the margin under double figures again.
If N.C. State hopes to duplicate last year’s postseason run, it all starts in Greensboro.
“It’s all about how you finish and our guys want to finish well,” second-year Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “That’s important to them. We talked about it all year long, being at your best at the end of the year, and that’s what we need to be — at our best now.”
N.C. State certainly didn’t expect to be in Thursday’s first round, considering it entered the year as the league favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season and carrying a No. 6 national ranking, the program’s highest in 29 years. But the Wolfpack played inconsistently much of the year and squandered a chance to earn a top-four seed and a first-round bye by losing at Florida State in last weekend’s finale.
That bye instead went to fourth-seeded Virginia, the Wolfpack’s opponent in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Yet the Wolfpack had relatively little trouble against the last-place Hokies in what the team hopes is just the start of another postseason run after reaching the ACC semifinals and the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 last season.
“We felt if we could just keep winning, we could keep playing,” Howell said of last year. “That’s the same thing we want to do this year.”
Brown had nine points, 12 assists and seven rebounds, but did his best work as a nagging defense presence against Green — the nation’s leading scorer at 25.4 points per game.
“I just basically fed off the energy from my teammates,” Brown said. “They did a great job helping me off the screens and just containing him from shooting the 3-pointer and driving.”
N.C. State won the teams’ first meeting in overtime on Feb. 16, though Green had 29 points and eight assists in that one. He didn’t come anywhere near that with Brown chasing him around the court this time, finishing with 15 on 5-for-19 shooting.
When Green managed to get a step on Brown, other Wolfpack defenders were quick to give help.
“They did a great job,” Green said. “They had a good defense and (in the) first half it kind of caught me off guard. I saw a lot of double teams and staying with me off pick-and-rolls.”
Howell, a first-team all-ACC performer, finished 11-for-13 from the field. Leslie added seven rebounds as N.C. State took a 40-25 rebounding advantage.
Freshman Rodney Purvis punctuated the win by throwing down a slam over Virginia Tech’s Christian Beyer with 2 seconds left.
Virginia Tech shot 50 percent in the first half and trailed 38-32 at the break, but fell to 35.3 percent (12 for 34) after halftime as the Wolfpack pulled away.
“We only played well in spots, but not enough,” first-year Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said.
N.C. State led just 48-42 before freshman T.J. Warren started the decisive run with a 3-pointer, then Brown found Howell ahead in transition for a slam. After another basket from Warren, Brown found Howell in the lane for a score, then found Purvis for a transition layup that made it 59-42 with about 12 minutes left.
Virginia Tech got no closer than 10 again.
Green had shot just 33 percent in his six career tournament games coming in, including 20.8 percent (5 for 24) from 3-point range. Going back to his 3-for-16 performance in a loss to Duke in last season’s quarterfinals, Green missed 27 of 35 shots in his last two ACC tournament games.
Jarell Eddie scored 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting to lead the Hokies.
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