C.J. Leslie sizes up Clemsons Milton Jennings during the Wolfpacks 66-62 win over the Tigers
  • Chris Baird
  • C.J. Leslie sizes up Clemson’s Milton Jennings during the Wolfpack’s 66-62 win over the Tigers

PNC ARENA/RALEIGH—The knock all season on No. 14 N.C. State has been their inability/unwillingness to play as well to start games and they do to finish them. The Wolfpack sought to change that Sunday evening against Clemson, breaking out their black kits for the first time this season and jumping out to an 8-point lead over the opening five minutes, a margin they would hold into halftime. N.C. State, the third-best shooting team in the nation, converted 53.8 percent of their field goals during the opening stanza, led by T.J. Warren’s 14 bench points.

However, the Wolfpack was held to only 33 percent shooting in the second half, and the score was tied with 3:30 left in the game and again with 2 minutes remaining. A 3-point play by Richard Howell and five late free throws by Scott Wood enabled N.C. State (15-3, 4-1 ACC) to hold on for a 66-62 win over the Tigers (10-7, 2-3 ACC).

Warren finished with a team-high 21 points off 9-11 shooting. Richard Howell had 11 points and 12 rebounds, earning his 10th double-double this season. However, Howell only shot 4-12 and was dominated inside by Clemson’s Devin Booker, who led all scorers with a career-high 27 points.

Indeed, two straight dunks by Booker cut the Wolfpack lead to two with 8:40 remaining. That’s when N.C. State Head Coach Mark Gottfried shifted to a zone defense to try to hold that Tiger. While the change opened opportunities for guard Rod Hall, who scored eight of his 16 points in the final 5:30, Booker had no points after the shift and attempted his last shot with 6:44 remaining.

Booker said coming into the game he expected more zone from N.C. State. Instead, the Clemson senior took advantage until the Wolfpack began to snuff out his opportunities.

“[My effort] just wasn’t good enough,” Booker said. “I did alright, but we didn’t get the win. So I can’t feel too good.”

Gottfried also credited switching to the quicker C.J. Leslie to guard Booker late in the second half. Indeed, although Booker scored nine points after halftime, he only managed six shots.

“Booker’s just a load,” Gottfried said. “He’s big and strong. He’s a tough matchup in there for us. We wanted to double down a couple times [but] we were late getting there … In the second half, I thought Calvin [Leslie] used his quickness to keep it out of there. [Booker] didn’t get it as much in the second half.”

T.J. Warren rises for two of his 21 points against Clemson
  • Chris Baird
  • T.J. Warren rises for two of his 21 points against Clemson

It was an off-night for Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack’s two leading scorers. Each finished with only six points apiece, with Leslie gathering a paltry three rebounds against a Clemson team that missed 38 shots.

The difference between winning and losing for N.C. State came down to three key statistics. First was Warren’s performance coming off his scoreless output during last Wednesday’s loss at Maryland. The Wolfpack outscored Clemson 14-5 from the free throw line thanks to 16 more attempts from the charity stripe. Finally, N.C. State committed zero turnovers in the second half after coughing up nine before halftime.

The Wolfpack has run the gamut over the past eight days, from a heralded victory over then-undefeated Duke to a disappointing one-point defeat at Maryland to a grind-out win back at PNC Arena. The result over Clemson wasn’t a pretty performance for either team. But for Gottfried, who was celebrating his 49th birthday today, a win’s a win.

“Part of being in a league like this is that you’ve got to grind some out,” Gottfried said. “It’s not always going to be glamorous. You’ve just got to find a way to keep winning.”

N.C. State has a quick turnaround as it travels to Wake Forest this Tuesday to take on the Demon Deacons. The Wolfpack returns home next Saturday, January 26 for a big game against the North Carolina Tar Heels (and a visit from ESPN College GameDay).