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February 26, 2009

Too much Johnson for NC State

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For a little over 33 minutes Thursday night, NC State played well, probably well enough to knock off No. 13 Wake Forest at the LJVM Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.

But for those other six-plus minutes, which happened to be from the 11:03 mark in the first half to 4:13, Wake Forest dominated, outscoring NC State 20-2 in that stretch to turn a 22-19 NC State lead into a 39-24 Deacons cushion.

NC State started the game making nine of their first 14 shots, they made just one of their next 10 as Wake Forest temporarily busted the game open. Sparking the Wake run would be two guys who proved too much for NC State to handle Thursday night, junior reserve point guard Ishmael Smith and sophomore forward James Johnson.

Johnson scored eight points while Smith added five, including a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down over the outstretch arm of Wolfpack redshirt junior point guard Farnold Degand to give Wake a 38-24 lead with 5:18 to go. Smith had made just one 3-pointer in Wake's previous 12 ACC games.

Johnson would go on to set career-highs with 28 points and 18 rebounds, and Smith nearly set a career-high himself with 18 points, one point off his previous better. Johnson also sparked a dominating effort on the boards, as Wake crushed NC State in rebounding 42-27. With 3:26 to go in the first half, the Deacs had a 20-5 edge on the glass.

"I think the biggest statistic of the game was the backboard," Wake Forest head coach [bd]Dino Gaudio[/db] noted. "James Johnson's work on the boards in the first half, as well as the second, was just outstanding. He grabbed every rebound. He would not let us lose."

Still, the Pack did not lay an egg. Rather than get blown out, NC State clawed their way back. Sparked by some of the best point guard play Pack coach Sidney Lowe has seen all year, NC State cut the 15-point deficit to eight at the half, 43-35.

State then started the second half with a 9-3 run to cut the lead to 46-44, forcing Gaudio to burn a timeout with 15:47 to go in the game. That was the first of three times NC State sliced the lead to two. However, each time Wake scored on its next possession, including a 3-pointer by sophomore reserve guard Gary Clark with 11:42 to go, giving the Deacs a 57-52 lead.

Three more times after that, NC State cut Wake's lead to three, but again, all three times Wake answered on its next possession, including one possession where junior center Chas McFarland had two offensive rebounds before tipping it in. McFarland finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. He had not scored in double digits since Wake's win at Boston College Jan. 14, a span of 10 games.

However, the story of Thursday was Johnson and Smith. The shot of the game came from Smith, who answered a 3-pointer by NC State senior wing Courtney Fells to cut the Wake lead to 67-61 with another shot clock-beating 3-pointer, giving the Deacs a nine-point edge with 6:14 to go. Smith was 1-of-8 shooting threes in conference play and just 3 of 18 on the year before making 2 of 3 Thursday night.

Then Smith's lone assist came on the play of the game. With Wake leading 76-71, Smith executed a perfect alley-oop play to Johnson for an emphatic one-handed dunk with 1:05 left, sending the 14,108 at the Joel Coliseum to the exits with smiles.

"I thought that was a tough ball game," Lowe said. "They played well. I thought our guys hung in there, made a run, got back in there. They had a couple of guys that made some big plays for them. James Johnson played well. A couple of times we had the shot clock against them, Ish made some big threes and that let them keep their momentum going. I was proud of the way our guys hung in there and fought back. Wake was the better team tonight."

Although State had a sluggish stretch offensively, that end of the court did not let them down Thursday night. The Pack shot a respectable 47.7 percent, and they had only eight turnovers compared to 18 assists. The point guard combo of sophomore Javier Gonzalez and redshirt junior Farnold Degand did their part as well, combining for 20 points, 11 assists and just five turnovers.

NC State had five players score in double figures, with sophomore forward Tracy Smith leading the way with 18 points. Degand and senior center Ben McCauley each added 12, and junior forwards Brandon Costner and Dennis Horner both added 10.

However, the Pack's defense let them down in the end. State could never come up with the crucial defensive stop to get over the hump, and Wake Forest shot 52.5 percent, making 32 of 61 shots. The Deacs also did the job at the free throw line, making 18 of 22, including a 4 for 4 effort from Smith. The Deacons' point guard is now shooting over 80 percent from the line after making just 21.9 percent last year.

"I think he deserves all the improvement he's made because he's a tireless worker," Guadio said. "He worked on those free throws all summer. He would text me and coach [Pat] Kelsey during the summer and say he was 175 for 200. He shot 200 free throws a day."

The Deacs' won despite NC State shutting down their star sophomore guard Jeff Teague for the second time this year. Teague, who was averaging 20.3 points a game coming into Thursday's contest, had just 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting. Teague only scored 11 points the first time these two teams played, an 82-76 NC State win on Feb. 11.

NC State, which fell to 15-11 and 5-8 in the ACC, will host Maryland Sunday night. Wake Forest is now 21-5 overall and 8-5 in the ACC. They will be at Virginia on Saturday night.


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