Posted: Saturday March 18, 2006 1:46AM; Updated: Saturday March 18, 2006 1:46AM
Herb Sendek has reason to smile, as Friday's win may have silenced some of his critics.
DALLAS -- Just when the season looked the darkest for N.C. State, with fans and a local columnist calling for the head of their head coach, the Wolfpack pulled out a victory that -- to many who don't suit up for the red and white -- seemed so unlikely just one week ago.
Mired in a four-game losing streak that felt more like 40 to N.C. State fans, the Wolfpack nipped Cal 58-52 on Friday night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, squashing, at least for one night, the speculation of coach Herb Sendek's future and, more importantly, the apocalypse appearing in Raleigh.
Wolfpack backers can thank a smothering, double-teaming defense that limited sensational Bears forward Leon Powe to just 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting as well as senior guard Cameron Bennerman, who scored five huge points down the stretch to move N.C. State into a second round matchup against Texas.
"I couldn't be more proud," Sendek said after the victory. "Our group showed excellent character. They maintained their poise and showed a great deal of grit and character. It's always great to be on a bus with those guys."
Player Who Impressed Me
Bennerman. On a team that spreads the wealth offensively, Bennerman has evolved into the squad's go-to player this season. On Jan. 29 at Clemson, he hit a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds remaining to force overtime against the Tigers, whom N.C. State ended up beating. Friday night was no different as he first hit a fallaway jumper with 3:39 remaining to break a 50-50 tie. Then with the game tied at 52 and just 32 seconds left, he buried a 3-pointer that proved to be the game-winner. "You need special players to step up, and Cameron has been that guy for us throughout the year," Sendek said. "Tonight he was really special."
In its second round matchup against Texas, N.C. State will face Big 12 Player of the Year P.J. Tucker, who grew up in Raleigh. The Wolfpack recruited Tucker but did not offer him a scholarship, because of concerns of his academics and lack of size. ... Wolfplack players got defensive when they were asked in the postgame press conference about the future of Sendek, whom one Greensboro columnist wrote last week should no longer be the Wolfpack coach after the season. "That statement was foolish, and we pay no mind to it," senior guard Tony Bethel said. Added Bennerman: "It's not gonna happen." ... Could divine intervention have played a part in N.C. State's win? Father Dan Kenna, the team's spiritual leader the last 10 years, led the team in a special pre-game prayer on Friday. "We always pray before games," Kenna said, "but we prayed extra hard tonight."
The victory over Cal may have been just the tonic necessary for N.C. State to get its swagger back. Facing second-seeded Texas on Sunday, the Wolfpack will need to knock down their outside shots because it's likely the Longhorns will sit back in their 2-3 zone to prevent State from getting back-door layups through its modified Princeton offense. But as Texas showed in a sluggish win on Friday night against Penn, the 'Horns are not playing their best right now and could be vulnerable.