All throughout North Carolina State’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Boston College on Saturday, Wolfpack guard Lorenzo Brown and referee Les Jones kept up a relatively friendly conversation.
There were so many whistles the officials felt like drum majors.
Brown, for the most part, chatted up Jones for clarification.
But with 27 seconds left in a tight game, when BC forward Ryan Anderson won a shoving match with Wolfpack forward Richard Howell for a rebound under the Eagles’ basket, flushed a two-handed dunk, and got the foul call for a 3-point play that cut N.C. State’s lead to 72-71, Brown grinned in disbelief, then walked toward Jones.
“You’ve got to see that,” Brown said.
Howell turned to Jones and asked, “Did you see that push?”
Jones, with a face that said toughen up, told the 6-foot-8-inch, 257-pound Howell, “Play ball.”
Howell, his face scrunched, replied, “I was just asking a question. You ain’t have to say it like that.”
N.C. State came into Conte Forum as the preseason favorite in the ACC and the No. 23 team in the country. The Wolfpack were 8-point favorites.
But during a 78-73 win over an Eagles team that had won five straight games, N.C. State got an alley fight with brawls for rebounds, elbows to make space to shoot, and collisions under the rim for loose balls. It was the kind of game where the teams combined to miss 11 of their first 17 free throws, BC went nearly nine minutes without a field goal, N.C. State ended the first half with a 14-6 run, and it was still just 29-28, Wolfpack, at half.
“I thought we did a lot of things really well in terms of things that you’re going to need to do to win games,” said BC coach Steve Donahue. “I thought we were tough and physical and competed and took care of the basketball. We fought through adversity with foul trouble. All that stuff. But to win a game against a talented team like that we’ve got to do certain things that we typically do.”
In a game it largely trailed, composure was critical for N.C. State, a program that reached the Elite Eight last season.
“That’s what it’s about on the road,” Brown said. “You’re going to have bad calls, teams are going to make runs, but if you keep your head and remain focused throughout the whole game, only good things can happen after that.”
After a pair of free throws by N.C. State forward Scott Wood made it 74-71, there was a whistle no one on the Wolfpack bench wanted to hear.
With their best 3-point shooter, Lonnie Jackson, fouled out, the Eagles were looking for an equalizer at all costs. A few feet from the BC bench, Patrick Heckmann gave N.C. State freshman guard Rodney Purvis enough of an upfake for Purvis to leap and make marginal contact at the hip.
Seeing Heckmann go to the foul line with a chance to tie the game, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried ripped his jacket off, tossed it at the bench, and threw his hands up.
Purvis didn’t even know he had been whistled for a foul.
“I thought it was a timeout or something,” Purvis said. “Maybe I breathed on him or something. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I didn’t touch him at all.”
Heckmann made two of three, and eventually Wood (12 points) iced the game with six free throws. Otherwise, the Wolfpack went 40 minutes without exhaling against a team they beat twice last season with relative ease.
“They’re getting good,” Wood said. “Last year, they weren’t a great team, but I think they’re getting a lot better and they’re going to knock some teams off in the ACC this year.”
The differences were clear.
Anderson put up the eighth double-double of his sophomore season with 22 points (6-of-15 shooting) and 13 rebounds, pushing back at the Wolfpack bigs, as opposed to his freshman year when he was the one getting pushed.
Freshman guard Joe Rahon (18 points, 8 of 11 from the free throw line) played as if it wasn’t his first ACC game.
“We know we can play with anybody,” Rahon said. “In a tight game like this, we’re a young team and it’s teaching us how to win tough games.”
And at the same time BC sent a message to the rest of the league that it’s not the same team that won just four conference games a year ago.
“I think they’re going to win some games this year in the league,” Gottfried said. “They’re going to give some people some tough times.”