- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State forward C.J. Leslie doesn't exactly know how he ended up hoisted upon fans' shoulders near midcourt Saturday afternoon, the chanting, yelling, exuberant Wolfpack crowd celebrating around him.
But the view sure is nice from the top.
"I couldn't see not one bit of the court; it was just all people,'' the junior said, his eyes growing big at the memory. "That's going to be a moment I will never forget."
Along, of course, with beating the No. 1 team in the nation.
Using a combination of big buckets from Leslie, relentless second-half rebounding by senior Richard Howell and a confident resolve that has been building since second-year coach Mark Gottfried took over the program, the Wolfpack halted top-ranked Duke's 15-game winning streak with an 84-76 victory at PNC Arena.
It's the first time since 1988-89 that the Wolfpack have won 10 in a row and have started ACC play 3-0. And it not only should earn NC State renewed respect in a state where it has played stepbrother to Duke and North Carolina of late, but also should reboot the relevance of a program that had been somewhat forgotten in recent months after falling out of the early top 10.
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,'' said senior Scott Wood. "Them, North Carolina, Florida State, they've been at the top [of the ACC] for the last few years now, and to be on top, you've got to beat them. This is a start."
The Wolfpack played with the kind of consistency and confidence many thought we'd see at the beginning of the season, when they were picked to win the conference after returning four starters from last year's NCAA Sweet 16 run. Losses to Oklahoma State and then-No. 3 Michigan -- along with Duke's three wins over top five teams -- pushed State back into the shadow of its Triangle neighbor.
But players said they had no doubt they would beat the Devils for only the fifth time in 26 tries.
And they played that way.
"I thought our guys, they accepted the challenge," Gottfried said. "It's one of those [games] where it comes to a point where mentally you say, 'I'm going to get it done' and they're not going to go away. They're not going to lay down for us. Our guys mentally showed a lot of toughness."
Trailing by eight points with about nine minutes left in the first half, Wood (14 points) jump-started a 15-4 run with a four-point play that also included a double technical when he got fouled on a 3 by Duke guard Tyler Thornton. Wood offered the defender a few choice words; Thornton countered with an elbow. It ignited the quieting crowd and the team.
"It stopped the bleeding,'' Wood said.
Reversed it, really.
State led 41-39 at the break, but Howell -- annoyed by the fact that Duke dominated the offensive boards 11-5 in the first 20 minutes -- pushed his team ahead even further. He started the second half on a tear, scoring six points in his team's 8-2 run, all on offensive rebounds. He went on to post 14 second-half rebounds and 18 for the game, tied for the most in a win over No. 1 in the last 15 years.
"He's just a beast,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
And then there was Leslie, the local kid determined to make some winning memories. After Duke's Seth Curry (22 points before leaving the game because of a rolled left ankle) scored back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to one, Leslie countered with six straight points.
Duke, playing without starting forward Ryan Kelly (out indefinitely with a foot injury), never got closer than four points the rest of the way. Every time the Blue Devils tried to threaten, Leslie was there to counter.
"These types of games, when it comes to something like that, I want the ball,'' the junior forward, who finished with 25 points and six rebounds, said of his second-half performance. "No doubt about it. I knew I had to be aggressive; I wanted the ball, and Zo [Brown] and the rest of the guys did a great job getting me the ball."
Krzyzewski credited the Wolfpack for playing "a heck of a game." The crowd thought so, too. As Howell grabbed the final rebound and the final seconds wound down, fans -- led by a person in a wheelchair -- rushed the floor, engulfing the players who were celebrating near midcourt.
After Leslie was lifted onto some shoulders, Brown (12 points, 13 assists) soon followed.
He, too, appreciated the view.
"I've never been out there when the court was rushed like that,'' he said. "I like that feeling."