RALEIGH – Riding the distribution ability of point guard Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State won three games to start the conference season and sat at 5-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference play with its only losses coming by a combined three points.
Then, eight minutes into the N.C. State’s game against Virginia, Brown went down with a left ankle injury.
All of N.C. State’s momentum was gone.
Its swagger disappeared.
“It knocked the wind out of our sails,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said.
After three straight losses following Brown’s injury, N.C. State (19-7, 8-5 ACC) has won three straight and appears to have its mojo.
“I think there is some momentum gained,” Gottfried said. “You always want you team to be playing its best basketball at the beginning of March, end of February.”
It’s the best time for Brown, who said he still is only 85 percent, to be back in form. N.C. State’s defeat of Florida State on Tuesday created a little separation from the middle tier of the ACC.
On Saturday, N.C. State can create even more.
“I’m aware who’s up next,” Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie said through a smirk. “We have to go down there, and we have to have a good game. We know they are going to bring it.”
Saturday, N.C. State faces rival North Carolina, which currently is on a three-game winning streak of its own, and is tied with the Wolfpack for fourth in the conference. The Tar Heels are one game behind in overall record, which the league uses as a multi-team tiebreaker.
A victory with just four games remaining in the season would give the Wolfpack a one-game advantage and a sweep of its biggest rival.
That slight lead could mean the difference between playing on the first day of the ACC Tournament or starting on the second.
The Wolfpack’s remaining schedule looks prime for a strong run to end the season. N.C. State faces Boston College before traveling to Georgia Tech, returning home for a game against Wake Forest and finishing the season on the road against Florida State.
N.C. State defeated three of the four already, losing to Wake Forest in Winston Salem on Jan. 22.
Feeding off a wave of energetic practices, including Monday’s, which Gottfried said was one of the better practices of the season, N.C. State jumped out early on Florida State and never let up Tuesday night. The victory completed a sweep for Gottfried who now has defeated every ACC school at least once in fewer than two years in the league.
Holding, and extending, a lead is never a guarantee, but it’s a sign that N.C. State might be showing signs of maturity by not forfeiting an advantage and closing out games.
“We’re on a winning streak,” Leslie said. “We’re doing a good job of staying with it and playing well together. We just want to continue down that path.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org