RALEIGH – There could not have been a worse time for Lorenzo Brown to sustain an injury. N.C. State’s senior point guard, in the conversation to be an All-American, went down during the Wolfpack’s contest at Virginia, an eventual loss.
Brown still wasn’t ready for Saturday’s contest against No. 14 Miami, and will be somewhat limited Thursday at No. 5 Duke, if he plays at all.
That’s the top three teams in the league back-to-back-back, hardly ideal circumstances for N.C. State, which has lost three of its past four games.
While the stretch certainly has damaged N.C. State’s resume for the NCAA Tournament and made it a longshot to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title, there is a silver lining. Freshman Tyler Lewis, untested until Brown’s injury, has proven worthy against the ACC’s best.
“He came in and he did his job. He did a good job,” N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie said of Lewis. “He did exactly what was asked of him, and there’s nothing you could ask more.”
In truth, Lewis did far more than that for N.C. State (16-6, 5-4). After playing 29 minutes and scoring three points in the past six games before Saturday, Lewis played 36 outstanding minutes against first-place Miami, scoring 16 points, obtaining five assists and turning the ball over only once.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried had planned for Lewis and Rodney Purvis to cover the point guard duties, but Lewis took over the role by himself. After the Wolfpack turned over the ball four times in the first four minutes, Gottfried subbed in Lewis and never took him out.
The Wolfpack had to hide Lewis on defense, often leaving him with Miami shooter Trey McKinney Jones and letting Purvis guard Miami point guard Shane Larkin, but the Wolfpack’s offense was more effective with Lewis running the point.
“I thought with both Rodney and Tyler, they might split some minutes,” Gottfried said. “I though Tyler was just playing very well. He created shots for others, he got us into our offense. He did a lot of good things for our team.”
N.C. State lost by one on a tip-in inside the final second, a loss that could remove it from the top 25.
Only one team since 2007 has won fewer than 26 games and been named a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. To earn 26 wins, N.C. State, the preseason pick to win the ACC, would have to sweep its remaining seven regular season games and win three games in the ACC Tournament.
“It definitely would have been a huge win,” Purvis said of the Miami loss. “It would have made a mark for us, not having Lorenzo in, who’s an all-American guy and things like that. With Tyler being there to fill the role of Lorenzo Brown, coming in and keeping us in the game, that’s all we can really ask for.”
Though the resume is damaged, there is an argument that N.C. State is better for having Lewis earn major minutes in Brown’s absence.
Gottfried said Lewis – who did not play a single minute two weeks ago at Maryland – probably earned himself consistent playing time even when Brown does return, giving N.C. State another option on offense.
Lewis played at prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and wasn’t used to sitting around and watching.
“I was getting a little frustrated, but at the same time, I knew I was playing behind Lorenzo. You can’t be too mad because Lorenzo is going to get his minutes, and he should,” Lewis said. “(I was) practicing hard and I was just trying to stay positive. I knew my opportunity would come at some time throughout the season.”
The Hurricanes, perhaps the deepest team in the ACC, made a 16-2 run in the second half to take a six-point lead. Miami was using its muscle to overtake N.C. State, which took a timeout to re-evaluate.
Though it didn’t win, the Wolfpack went on a 13-4 run and made the game come down the final possession.
Lewis said he thought he “proved a lot of people wrong” with the way he played Saturday, though Gottfried was more impressed – and more encouraged – by his team’s demeanor without Brown.
“Without Lorenzo, I think our team could have accepted their fate at some point. They chose not to. I really liked that about our team,” Gottfried said. “I thought there was a lot of competitive greatness in there from our guys to keep digging, which they did. I told our team, if we keep playing hard like that, if we keep competing like that, good things are going to happen for our team.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.