Wake Forest forward Josh Howard is a national player of the year candidate, the top scorer in the ACC and the senior leader of the conference's best team, but today in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, North Carolina State swingman Julius Hodge stole his thunder.
Hodge scored a career-high 31 points and helped keep Howard and the top-seeded Demon Deacons in check for most of the second half, fueling an 87-83 win that might have put N.C. State in the NCAA tournament and dashed Wake Forest's hope for a No. 1 seed.
The Wolfpack took control with a 25-6 run spanning the two halves and held tight against a late Wake Forest charge to earn a spot in the final against Duke, which kept alive its quest for a fifth straight ACC tournament title by beating North Carolina, 75-63, in the second semifinal.
Down four at the break, N.C. State (18-11) shot 63 percent, including 7 of 8 on three-pointers, and 77 percent from the free throw line in the second half.
Defensively, Hodge led a team effort that limited Howard to 6-of-21 shooting and just seven second-half points. Wolfpack Coach Herb Sendek said it's a tribute to Howard's talent that he managed 21 points and 12 rebounds on an off day.
"At the end of the day, we weren't going to pick up the stat sheet and see zeros next to his name," said Sendek, whose team allowed Howard 27 points in a last-minute loss to Wake last weekend. "But what we tried to do was eliminate the easy baskets -- an offensive rebound here or a transition basket there -- and we may have done that a little better today."
A win over the ninth-ranked Deacons (24-5) should boost N.C. State's NCAA tournament hopes. The Wolfpack won nine ACC games and finished fourth in the conference but won only 16 regular season games and was No. 63 in the RPI ratings after Friday's quarterfinal win over Georgia Tech. Before today, its only marquee win was almost two months old: a home win against then-No. 3 Duke.
"One thing I can say is that we've gotten better," Sendek said. "We are a lot better today than we were in early January."
The upset also set up a rematch of last year's ACC title game, in which N.C. State fell apart against Duke, 91-61, after knocking off Maryland in the semifinal.
With 51/2 minutes left in the first half today, Howard and Hodge were a combined 1 for 14. But they shot 5 for 7 as the half wound down, trading blows before the Deacons took a 37-33 halftime lead with the ninth lead change of the half.
Hodge landed the first blow: a fast-break layup that put his team ahead 26-21, and energized the Wolfpack contingent. Howard answered on the next possession, starting a 12-0 Wake Forest run during which he scored seven points.
N.C. State was just getting warmed up -- especially Hodge and junior teammate Marcus Melvin (23 points), who scored 35 of their combined 54 points in the second half. The Wolfpack hit seven of its first eight shots after the break, starting with back-to-back threes from Melvin and Scooter Sherrill. Cliff Crawford hit a jumper and Hodge hit a three in quick succession, then came another Sherrill three and a dunk by Melvin that boosted the lead to 52-41.
"From then on, we were fighting to get up the hill," Howard said.
Wake Forest almost got there after trailing by 13 with five minutes left, but Melvin hit seven free throws in the final minute to preserve the upset.
* DUKE 75, NORTH CAROLINA 63: Sophomore guard Daniel Ewing led the Blue Devils for a second straight game, scoring a game-high 19 points after finishing with 32 -- the most by a Duke player at the ACC tournament in 11 years -- against Virginia in the quarterfinals. Five of his teammates scored at least eight points.
The seventh-seeded Tar Heels beat Maryland on Friday but never threatened to repeat that upset this afternoon, even after surprising the Blue Devils with an 82-79 win last weekend in Chapel Hill.
Duke (23-6) held a 54-33 lead after dominating the first half and had little problem holding Carolina (17-15) in check the rest of the way.