CHAPEL HILL – Since C.J. Leslie walked on to the N.C. State campus three years ago, there have been a limited number of big games.
Saturday’s game against North Carolina was big, but Leslie, the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, was seemingly absent from the Wolfpack’s 76-65 loss at the Dean Smith Center.
In fact, the Wolfpack might have preferred if Leslie missed the first half entirely.
“He’s a great player, and great players have to step up and play,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Period.”
Leslie had six of N.C. State’s 12 first-half turnovers – eclipsing North Carolina’s first-half total of four by himself.
Some thought Leslie might leave N.C. State after last season for the NBA Draft.
Instead, Leslie decided to return, and although he led the Wolfpack (19-8, 8-6 ACC) to an upset of then-No. 1 Duke earlier this season, his play Saturday partly kept N.C. State from taking sole possession of third place in the ACC.
Now, the Wolfpack, which lost to North Carolina (19-8, 9-5) for the 14th time in 15 tries, is looking up at their neighboring rival in the standings without any form of a tiebreaker.
“We just have to go back to work,” Gottfried said.
Leslie, whose given name is Calvin, was still the root of N.C. State’s problems Saturday. While he didn’t commit a turnover in the second half, he finished with just six points – equal to his turnover total and his second-lowest output of the season.
He pulled down just four rebounds.
Richard Howell, who leads the ACC in rebounding, had 13 points and 17 rebounds. Freshman forward T.J. Warren, who made his sixth start, finished with 10 and 10.
Leslie’s struggles weren’t a problem of strategy or lack of possession – he finished 3-for-8.
Leslie’s struggles were all his own.
“I love him as much as anybody, but when you’re a good player, then you have to play better,” Gottfried said. “Richard (Howell) gets 17 rebounds (Saturday). Are we expecting Richard to get 30 rebounds? Holy Mackerel. Somebody else has to rebound the ball.
“Calvin has to step up, period.”
After playing so poorly in the first half that some N.C. State fans would have wished him absent, Leslie nearly was an apparition in the second half.
Leslie threw down a dunk with with 8:06 to go to give N.C. State a three-point lead.
He hit just one more basket and picked up two fouls from that point and had one rebound as North Carolina rallied back.
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org