Tony Haynes: A Second Chance For Wolfpack
BY TONY HAYNES
RALEIGH, N.C. – To find out how far the NC State basketball team has come in just the last few weeks, one needs only to grab a tape of the Wolfpack’s 71-60 loss to West Virginia on December 6. Often looking lost and uncertain without senior point guard Engin Atsur on the floor, the Pack went through long stretches where it couldn’t get into an offensive flow against the Mountaineers and their changing defenses.
But thanks to a late-season surge, which has included back-to-back wins over Drexel and Marist, NC State (20-15) will get a second chance to face West Virginia (24-9) and its cerebral coach John Beilein in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament Tuesday night in Morgantown. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m.
To the winner will go a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night, March 27.
When it faced the Mountaineers at the Charleston Civic Center in early December, the Wolfpack was playing its second straight game without Atsur, who had pulled a hamstring against Michigan the week before. Employing its clingy, trapping 1-3-1 zone defense after made baskets and free throws, West Virginia forced 17 NC State turnovers, including nine by stand-in point guard Gavin Grant.
With Grant now back at his customary small forward position and Atsur running the team, the Wolfpack should be better equipped to solve the 1-3-1, along with West Virginia’s underrated man-to-man defense.
“I’m sure [Atsur] is going to be excited as ever to play,” said sophomore center Ben McCauley, who had 15 points and seven rebounds in the first meeting with the Mountaineers. “He doesn’t want to stop and we don’t want to stop. We want to continue to give him as many ballgames as he can possibly have here at NC State.”
Atsur’s final season, in fact, was interrupted for 12 games before he finally became healthy enough to return to the floor in January. And even after tweaking the hamstring in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament against Virginia Tech, he’s continued to find ways to help his team win. In the NIT victories over Drexel and Marist, Atsur averaged 13.5 points and three assists with only four turnovers.
As much as anything else, however, he’s been in control, maintaining the pace of play that is needed for this team.
“He gives us that calming effect and that leadership,” said NC State head coach Sidney Lowe. “Having him in there is a great advantage for us in terms of attacking that 1-3-1, which is a very difficult zone.”
Speaking of zones, the Mountaineers were in one back on December 6, drilling 13-of-28 3-point baskets, including 8-of-14 in the second half. Beilein believes in using the 3-ball as a major offensive weapon and recruits accordingly. West Virginia ranks second in the nation in made 3-point field goals per game with an average of 10.3.
Senior forward Frank Young, West Virginia’s leading scorer (14.7 ppg.), nailed 6-of-8 from beyond the arc in a 31-point outburst in Thursday’s 90-77 triumph over Massachusetts.
Young and the Mountaineers are tough to beat when the long-range game is working, and they’re also difficult to deal with in their home arena, where they’ve prevailed in 16 of 17 games. Pittsburgh was the only opposing team to leave Morgantown with a win this season.
Of course, Lowe is hanging his hat on Atsur’s steady hand, not to mention a team that has caught fire late in the season. Dating back to the start of the ACC Tournament in Tampa, the Wolfpack has won five of six games to reach the 20-victory plateau.
Clearly, it’s not the same team that sometimes looked out of sorts the first time around against West Virginia.
“[The first game] seems long ago and I really think it was a different team back then,” Lowe said. “We’re a much better ball club. Just the experience we’ve had over this last week or so has been valuable. We’ve matured a great deal, so hopefully, we’ll play a little better.”
If you don’t believe him, just pull out the tape.
More Wolfpack Notes: Normally heard on Monday nights, the Sidney Lowe Radio Show will air live from the food court at Crabtree Valley Mall on Wednesday of this week because the team will be traveling to Morgantown on Monday. Wednesday’s show will air on the Wolfpack Sports Network between 8-9 p.m…NC State will have three full days between games for the first time in its last seven contests. A win for the Wolfpack could possibly set up a meeting with fellow ACC foe Florida State in the NIT semifinals. The Seminoles will visit Mississippi State on Tuesday night at 7 p.m…McCauley is coming off back-to-back double-doubles and three in the last eight days…NC State is trying to advance to the NIT semifinals for the third time in school history. The last time it happened was in 2000.