NEW YORK -- As the game got under the five-minute mark in the second half, you could see it starting to return. NC State coach Mark Gottfried had talked about his Wolfpack needing to get its "groove" back before last week's visit to No. 3 Michigan, and he came out of that game talking up the positives of shrinking a 15-point deficit into a seven-point loss on the home court of one of the nation's best teams. And until there was 4:16 left to play in the back-and-forth main event of Tuesday's Jimmy V Classic against Connecticut, it was still very much uncertain whether Gottfried would have to again settle for moral victories.
But that's when junior C.J. Leslie spread his wings, first opting to fly toward the rim for a fast-break dunk with Lorenzo Brown and Rodney Purvis flanking him, then celebrating with his arms extended at his side as he jogged back upcourt after the Huskies called timeout. At that point NC State led 59-53 on the heels of a 6-0 spurt, and as the ample and boisterous red-clad fans traded chants of "Wolf!' and "Pack!" during the break in action, it seemed the team that had slipped from sixth to 25th in the AP poll the past two weeks was about to close out a groove-finding victory.
"Our team took a step forward," Gottfried said after the 69-65 win. "We did against Michigan the other day, and now we've taken another step."
For most of game, the Huskies matched the Wolfpack's every stride. Connecticut opened an 11-point lead in the opening 8:22 of play, with five of its first seven field goals coming from beyond the arc. The Huskies are not a particularly adept three-point shooting team -- they entered the game ranked 252nd nationally with a 30.1 shooting percentage from deep -- and all told they connected on just eight of their 23 tries in the game. But they bludgeoned NC State with volume, attempting two treys on their opening possession and again trying two in a row four minutes later. In what became a surprising trend for a team that entered the game as the third-worst power-conference team in offensive rebounding percentage, Connecticut earned itself second chance after second chance on the glass in the first half, grabbing nine of a possible 21 offensive boards.
"Their rebounding killed us," Gottfried said. "They'd get an offensive rebound and fire it out to a guy for a three... I was more concerned with the fact that we weren't rebounding the basketball and we weren't getting some loose balls."
In the second half that all changed, thanks in large part to the play -- and the very presence -- of senior big man Richard Howell. After trimming 20-plus pounds upon Gottfried's arrival before last season, Howell has blossomed into one of the ACC's top rebounders, finishing third in the conference with 9.2 per game last season. But he was effectively invisible in the first half against Connecticut's unheralded inside combination of Tyler Olander and Enosch Wolf, and with 5:28 left in the first half he exited the game after Leslie elbowed him in the neck while they both pursued a rebound.
Gottfried said after the game that Howell experienced stinger-like numbness in his left hand after the incident, but when he returned in the second half, every part of his game seemed wide awake. (Asked after the game if his elbow "woke up" Howell, Leslie laughed and said, "I guess we can say that.") Howell had just two points and no rebounds before the break, yet finished with 13 and 10 after playing every minute of the second half. The forward who kept the Wolfpack alive in its concerning two-point win over North Carolina-Asheville 12 days earlier began grinding out another difference-making effort, gathering his own miss after an Olander stuff to drive baseline for a layup, then putting back a Leslie miss on the next possession to keep NC State up two with 15 minutes to go. Even when he missed a free throw following his layup to put the Wolfpack ahead by five with 1:16 remaining, he managed to swat the rebound out to Brown on the wing to keep possession and burn another 29 seconds off the clock before Brown was fouled.
"He just played phenomenal," Gottried said of Howell, who was limited by foul trouble to just 16 and 19 minutes, respectively, in NC State's November losses to Oklahoma State and Michigan. "He played with a tremendous amount of heart. We're a different team when he plays that many minutes."
Though neither appeared dominant, Leslie and Brown, the team's marquee players entering the season, each showed up well in the stat sheet, tying for a team-high 16 points while combining for nine assists; Leslie also had a game-high 13 rebounds. Brown added a pair of blocks and steals, a boon to a defense that has often been slack this season, but once again struggled to take care of the ball, turning it over six times in his fourth game with five-plus turnovers so far. He didn't appear too concerned post-game -- "Turnovers are gonna happen," he said -- but NC State will need to stop coughing up possessions if it's going to live up to the lofty expectations of resurgence it carried before the season.
Connecticut entered the year the Wolfpack's opposite in some ways: a perennially strong program seemingly weakened by the retirement of its Hall of Fame head coach, the administrative noncommittal to his successor, and the exodus of players following NCAA sanctions that will keep the Huskies at home during the postseason. What Tuesday's win really says about NC State may depend on whether UConn turns out to be more like the team that stunned Michigan State in coach Kevin Ollie's debut or the one that struggled to put away Quinnipiac and Stony Brook in recent weeks. But after being blown out by Oklahoma State, eking past North Carolina-Asheville at home, and falling behind big in Ann Arbor over their last three games, the win is welcome for the Wolfpack, who will now close out nonconference play with six straight home games.
"It's still early," Lesie said. "By all means, there's still a lot of basketball to be played." For the Wolfpack, that means more steps to take -- and for now, they're headed in the right direction.