Right after the opening tip it appeared like both teams skipped a month after adjusting their calendars for the end of January. The Wolfpack and Hurricanes battled back and forth, seeing multiple lead changes and momentum altering runs that confused the audience into thinking March Madness had come a month early.
Miami(FL) remained undefeated in conference action, improving to 8-0 on top of the ACC standings but the Wolfpack have absolutely nothing to hang their heads over. N.C. State might have suffered its first home loss, falling to 5-4 in the conference and losing four of their last six games, but this team proved all game long they are a roster filled with fighters.
The best possible thing that could have happened to the Wolfpack did, as they were forced to play Tyler Lewis extended minutes given the injury to Lorenzo Brown. Brown, the ACC’s top play maker and arguably the team’s most valuable player, was forced to sit out with an ankle injury he suffered in N.C. State’s last outing. The fact the Wolfpack were able to compete without their star guard against one of the best back courts in the conference with Shane Larkin and Durand Scott, and still only manage to lose by one is incredible on its own. However, the play of freshman guard Lewis against the Hurricanes is perhaps even more incredible.
Lewis, who in the last nine games only played double-digit minutes once, had the best game of his young career when N.C. State needed him the most. The 5-foot-11, 157lbs guard, who could easily be confused for a neighborhood paper boy, was phenomenal delivering 16 points, five assists and two rebounds in 36 minutes of action.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Lewis’ performance wasn’t what he was able to do, it was what he didn’t do. Playing 14 minutes more than his previous career high, the freshman turned the ball over just one time against Larkin and Scott, who sit first and fourth respectively, for steals in the conference.
The breakout performance for Lewis will be the best thing that ever happened to the Wolfpack given their lack of depth off the bench. N.C. State has operated with mostly just a six man rotation, with Brown seeing over 35 minutes of action a lot more often than not. Now that Lewis has given his team confidence to put him on the court more often, it’ll take a lot of pressure off of Brown once he returns to the line-up.
Even better is that Brown won’t need to rush back to the line-up given the way his team played against the Hurricanes.
Miami(FL) isn’t as talented matched-up position by position as the Wolfpack are, however the Hurricanes team chemistry is light years ahead of N.C. State’s. That ultimately made the difference in the end, but a humbling and, more importantly, heart breaking defeat like the one the Wolfpack just experienced usually results in bringing the team closer together. Especially, when N.C. State looked like they were about to pick up the victory without Brown even in the line-up.
The Wolfpack players might be hanging their heads right now but coach Mark Gottfried isn’t too upset. Not when C.J. Leslie records a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Not when Richard Howell continues to be monster on the inside with 15 points and eight rebounds on 7 of 11 shooting from the field. And there’s absolutely no chance Gottfried is upset when his trio of freshmen, Lewis, Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren all shoot 50% or better from the field.
The loss the Wolfpack just suffered is anything but discouraging as it’ll likely turn out to be blessing in disguise. The Hurricanes might be leaving Raleigh with big smiles on their faces but as they pat Johnson on the back for his game winner, one question won’t be able to escape them.
What if Brown had played?