Rick Carlisle, Virginia's best outside shooter, came into today's game struggling. He had made only seven of 29 shots and averaged just eight points the last eight games.
Aware of such numbers, the Wolfpack almost invited Carlisle to shoot. "The only problem with shooting slumps is you never know when a guy will break out of it," said N.C. State's Thurl Bailey. "It could be against you."
Carlisle broke out of the slump in the first half by breaking open a tied game with nine straight points. He went on to score a game-high 23 points that helped the second-ranked Cavaliers beat N.C. State, 86-75.
The cheers for Carlisle could be heard all the way back to College Park; Virginia's victory moved Maryland into a third-place tie in the Atlantic Coast Conference with State and Wake Forest. Each is 7-5 in league play with two games left.
Virginia (23-3 overall and 10-2 in the ACC) is tied with North Carolina for the league lead.
Despite the defeat, things weren't that gloomy for N.C. State. Playing for the first time since Jan. 12 when he suffered a broken foot, Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg played as a reserve and led State with 14 points. More important is the emotional boost his return could give this team going into its final regular-season games against Maryland (Thursday in Raleigh, N.C) and Wake Forest.
Whittenburg, a jump-shooting senior from De Matha, was originally feared lost for the season. He surprised himself, his coaches and teammates by playing 24 minutes today.
"I wanted to do all the things I normally do, but I was slow and hesitant," he said. "It'll take a week or so for me to get my wind back."
"I thought he'd play a minute or two in the first half and a minute or two in the second half," Coach Jim Valvano of N.C. State said. "But once he got in there and hit his first shot, I said, 'Let him play. Let him get this out of his system.' "
Whittenburg came in four minutes into the game and was on the floor only a few seconds when he dashed through a pack of Cavaliers and passed off to Sidney Lowe for a three-point assist.
After Virginia missed a shot, Whittenburg--a 58 percent three-point shooter, made a 24-footer over Othell Wilson for a 13-8 N.C. State lead.
The Wolfpack (16-9 overall) led, 27-22, with 8:04 left in the half before Virginia scored five straight to tie, three on a long jumper by Tim Mullen and two more on a turnaround jumper by Craig Robinson.
With Ralph Sampson being crowded by as many as three defenders, Carlisle took it from there.
He started with a foul shot, then a short jumper. His driving bank shot gave the Cavaliers the lead for good at 32-30. He made two foul shots, then drove the base line for another basket. After Robinson's tipin, Carlisle's 18-footer put the Cavaliers ahead, 40-30.
Virginia opened an 18-point lead several minutes into the second half on some good inside work by Robinson (11 points, nine rebounds) and Sampson (15 points, 16 rebounds).
State had gone cold from the field, especially freshman Ernie Myers, a 16-point-per-game scorer who shot zero for six from the field. Still, State managed to cut a 62-44 deficit to 64-59 with suprising help from reserves Alvin Battle and George McClain.
Enter Carlisle. His jumper broke State's momentum and pushed Virginia's lead to 68-59. State made one more run, when guard Terry Gannon made a three-pointer with 2:16 left that pulled the Wolfpack within 76-70. Sampson missed the front end of a bonus free throw set. But Wilson (14 points, five assists) made a reverse layup and there was little suspense, other than another three-pointer by Whittenburg.
Carlisle, who made nine of 12 from the field, said, "The ball just felt right coming off my hands, and I was looking for my shots more."
His teammates sensed that and got Carlisle the ball. "When someone is shooting like Rick was, you try to draw your man to you and give him the ball," said Jimmy Miller, "because it's going in."
Said Bailey, who missed 10 of 15 shots, "We talked about Carlisle before the game. We knew he likes to fake and shoot, or fake, drive and take the bank shot. The surprise was that we knew it, and he still got it done."