Mark Gottfried says it is no coincidence his team’s resurgence began with point guard Lorenzo Brown’s return from an injury.
Richard Howell scored 18 points — all in the first half — and North Carolina State continued its late-season surge by beating Georgia Tech 70-57 on Sunday night.
With Howell, the former Wheeler High School standout, contained in the second half, C.J. Leslie scored 11 of his 13 points in the final 20 minutes as N.C. State (21-8, 10-6 ACC) took its fifth win in its last six games. T.J. Warren had 14 points.
The hot streak began when Brown returned after missing two games and most of a third game with an ankle injury.
“We’re 10-3 when Lorenzo has played in this league and 0-3 without him,” Gottfried said, adding that, with a healthy Brown, “we could be one of those teams” at the top of the conference.
Brown had nine points with seven assists, two turnovers and three steals.
With the win, N.C. State is tied with fourth-place Virginia in the race for one of four first-round byes in the ACC tournament. Boston College beat Virginia 53-52 on Sunday.
“Every game is big for us now,” Leslie said. “It’s very important that we get the last couple of games.”
N.C. State, unranked in the last four polls, has regular-season games remaining against Wake Forest on Wednesday night and at Florida State on Saturday.
“With us, the bottom line is we’ve got to take care of the things we can take care of, so it really doesn’t matter what anybody else does,” Gottfried said when asked about Virginia’s loss.
N.C. State led by 14 in the first half. Georgia Tech (15-13, 5-11) fought back to cut the deficit to one point late in the first half and again early in the second half, but the Yellow Jackets couldn’t complete the comeback.
Leslie blocked two shots and had four of the Wolfpack’s 12 steals.
“We’re a great defensive team when we want to be,” Brown said. “(Sunday night), we showed it.”
The Yellow Jackets, coming off perhaps their best overall performance in a 78-68 win over Maryland, have not won back-to-back ACC games since the end of the 2010-11 season.
“One of the hardest things in this process is to be consistent and constantly build on stuff,” said Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, who said his players “show flashes” before fading with missed layups and turnovers.
“You think you’ve got it but you really don’t because it’s just not really who we are yet,” Gregory said. “It’s who we can be but not who we are.”
Georgia Tech had no player in double figures. Senior Mfon Udofia had nine points in his final regular-season home game. Robert Carter Jr. had eight points before fouling out with 1:12 remaining. Daniel Miller also had eight points.
Georgia Tech had no answer for Howell in the first half. The senior scored the Wolfpack’s first points on a follow shot, setting the pace for his role as go-to scorer. Howell had 10 of N.C. State’s first 12 points and had back-to-back baskets to start a 12-0 run for a 20-10 lead.
Leslie’s driving scoop gave N.C. State its biggest lead at 28-14.
“You’re on the road and they’re going to respond so I didn’t have any illusions of grandeur that all of a sudden it was going to be a blowout,” Gottfried said. “We knew they’d be competitive and come back and they did.”
Georgia Tech answered with a 16-4 run that included 3-pointers by Brandon Reed, a Whitefield Academy product, and Chris Bolden. Udofia’s 3-pointer cut the Wolfpack’s lead to one point at 34-33 before Warren’s layup gave N.C. State a 36-33 halftime advantage.
Howell made seven of 11 shots in the first half.
“Awesome,” Leslie said. “He was unconscious for a while from the field.”
Added Gottfried: “I thought Richard was great. You run out of adjectives for that guy. He had a big-time first half and I wasn’t sure he could have a second half like the first half, but he was very good offensively and rebounding the ball. He did everything he always does.”
With Kammeon Holsey drawing the primary defensive assignment on Howell in the second half, the Wolfpack struggled to keep the lead. Howell missed his only two shots in the second half.
Georgia Tech cut N.C. State’s lead to 51-49 on a follow-up shot by Marcus Georges-Hunt with 7 minutes remaining. Leslie answered with a three-point play on Carter’s fourth foul. A driving layup by Lorenzo Brown and two free throws by Rodney Purvis completed a 7-0 run that pushed the lead back to nine points at 58-49.
Leslie’s jumper gave N.C. State a 61-51 lead.
Tyler Lewis made five free throws in the final minute to protect the lead.