North Carolina State Coach Herb Sendek has a saying about anger. Anger, he likes to remind his players, is just one letter from danger. And that was the mind-set he stressed as his underdog Wolfpack entered last night's ACC tournament quarterfinal against the object of their wrath, second-seeded Wake Forest, whose star player, Chris Paul, had punched N.C. State's Julius Hodge in the groin during the teams' regular season finale just five days earlier.
With Paul looking on from the bench, having been slapped with a one-game suspension for his low blow, N.C. State brought all of its simmering passion to the game without ever losing its focus. The result was an old-fashioned whumping and a big-time upset, as the Wolfpack steamrolled to an 81-65 victory that avenged Paul's punch and, better still, bolstered the Wolfpack's case for an NCAA tournament bid and sent it to today's semifinals.
Wake Forest's Eric Williams tried to prevent North Carolina State's Julius Hodge from scoring two of his 22 points.
(Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
The Deacons were in the game in the earlygoing, and the score was knotted at 38 at halftime. But a stifling defensive effort by N.C. State in the second half put the game out of reach.
Hodge led the Wolfpack with 22 points and eight rebounds, while Ilian Evtimov added 18 points -- hitting 5 of 7 three-point attempts.
Wake Forest, meantime, never found its heart, its fire or its game. Its fundamental skills eroded first; normally rock steady from the free throw line, it made just 10 of 20 attempts. The Demon Deacons turned over the ball 15 times and were particularly sloppy in the second half. And in time, their confidence dissolved around them.
"Give credit to N.C. State," Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said. "They converted those turnovers into points. That was the telling part of the game -- too many points we gave them."
It was the biggest upset of the conference tournament and likely damaged Wake Forest's hopes of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when seedings are announced tomorrow. It also underscored Wake Forest's reliance on the sophomore guard Paul, who issued a statement earlier in the week apologizing for his actions in the game at N.C. State but didn't speak to reporters after yesterday's loss.
"He's remorseful, as you would expect," Prosser said of Paul.
The enmity between the teams was palpable from the outset, with elbows flying and wild scrums for nearly every errant ball.
Paced by Hodge's hot hand, the Wolfpack bolted to a quick lead while Wake struggled to fill the offensive gap left by Paul.
Wake Forest's Jamaal Levy hit a layup to pull even at 30 points each with 5 minutes 18 seconds remaining in the half, and Deacon fans exulted.
An inadvertent whistle with six seconds left in the half gave State possession, and Hodge sank a three-pointer to tie the score at 38 as time expired.
But whatever passion Wake Forest brought to MCI Center seemed to have been left in the locker room at halftime. The Wolfpack simply played harder down the stretch, fighting for loose balls and battling for second and third scoring chances. Hodge was relentless on both ends of the court, streaking up and down with a wild intensity in his eyes. He clapped along with fans and smacked the floor with his fists with each resumption of play, so eager to get the game going again.
If he was mindful of putting on a show, it must have been sweet to know that Paul had a courtside seat -- looking sharp in his gold suit, perhaps, but unable to do anything about Hodge's athletic display.
Sendek praised his team's total effort, but singled out Hodge as "nothing short of terrific."
"We ask him to do so many different things," Sendek said of Hodge. "He was just really special tonight."
For Hodge, the night's reward had nothing to do with Paul -- or at least, so he said. The reward was in playing tough defense and holding Wake Forest, the nation's third-ranked team overall and third-ranked offense (85.4 ppg), to 65 points. It was also in winning the battle of the boards, outrebounding Wake 31-30.
"Coming into this game my main focus was for us to continue with our great defensive pressure and to win," Hodge said. "We had more than enough incentive. It wasn't about anyone else except N.C. State. That's all we could play for: what's on the front of our jerseys."