Wolfpack rides high with sixth straight victory
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — N.C. State faced an early-season crisis last month after getting stunned by N.C. Central.
The Wolfpack haven't lost since.
T.J. Warren scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds Wednesday as N.C. State never trailed in a 65-58 victory over Tennessee that extended its winning streak to six games. This marked the Wolfpack's first road win of the season; they had fallen 68-57 at Cincinnati in their only previous away game.
"We just want to keep building off this little streak we have and to just keep getting better," Warren said.
The Wolfpack (8-2) have come a long way since that 82-72 overtime loss to North Carolina Central on Nov. 20. They got a boost from the return of 7-foot-1 center Jordan Vandenberg, who missed N.C. State's first four games with a high ankle sprain. They also got improved play from just about everyone else.
"Our guys, they were hurt that night," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "But we said we've got to get it back somewhere else, we're going to keep getting better. We didn't have Jordan in the game at that time. Our lineup was a little bit different. Some things have changed. We just want to make sure we keep improving. Get better, that's the bottom line. Let's get better each day."
Tennessee (6-4) needs to take a similar approach.
The Vols entered the season with a senior-laden roster that had high expectations, but their slow start is putting their NCAA tournament hopes in early jeopardy. The loss to N.C. State comes four days after the Vols fell 70-61 to No. 11 Wichita State, which was ranked 12th at the time of the game. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said he'd consider lineup changes in the wake of this two-game skid.
"They're down," Martin said. "The one thing we talk about all the time is it's more than just talent. There's got to be chemistry. You've got to (have) flow and togetherness, finding ways to win games, accepting roles, all those things when you're talking about being a great team. It's more than just guys with individual skill."
Jordan McRae scored 21 points for Tennessee (6-4), which shot 29.4 percent (20 of 68) overall and 12.5 percent (3 of 24) from 3-point range. Jeronne Maymon had 17 points and 16 rebounds for Tennessee. Jordan Stokes added 10 points and 13 rebounds as the Vols absorbed their first home loss. Antonio Barton, the Vols' starting point guard, missed all eight of his shots and went scoreless for a second straight game.
Anthony Barber had 12 points and Desmond Lee added 10 points for N.C. State, which pulled away down the stretch after allowing a 17-point halftime lead to shrink to five. Vandenberg and BeeJay Anya combined for nine of N.C. State's 12 blocks, though Vandenberg battled foul trouble all night.
With students on winter break, Tennessee didn't have as much of a home-court advantage as usual. The Thompson-Boling Arena crowd didn't have much to cheer anyway. Martin acknowledged his team seemed a step slow throughout the first half.
N.C. State led throughout the first half while capitalizing on Tennessee's poor shooting and all-around sluggish performance. Tennessee made just one basket and scored five points in the last 9 ½ minutes of the half and headed to the locker room trailing 37-20, the largest deficit the Vols had faced all season. Tennessee also missed its first 11 shots from 3-point range.
"We definitely came out slow, you can see that, and we were sluggish," Maymon said. "I think we just need to have a better focus coming into the game."
The Wolfpack had blown most of an 18-point lead Saturday before squeaking out an 82-79 victory over Detroit, and they let a double-digit advantage shrink again Wednesday. Tennessee outplayed N.C. State for much of the second half and cut the Wolfpack's lead to 48-43 on Darius Thompson's steal and layup with 8:30 remaining.
N.C. State was still clinging to a five-point lead with less than six minutes left when it went on a 6-0 run to regain control of the game. Tennessee wouldn't seriously threaten again.
"You know they're not going to go away," Gottfried said. "You know they're going to make a run. Twenty minutes is a long time. But I thought when they made their run, we had poise, we executed when we had to, we got some stops at key times and we were able to withstand it."