The clock was down to 12.4 seconds last Saturday night in Reynolds Coliseum, and North Carolina was trying to pull its Houdini act once more, this time at North Carolina State. The Tar Heels, who in the previous seven days had trailed Wake Forest by 18 points and Duke by 17 before rallying to win, had whittled what had been a 55-36 State lead down to 76-75. But the Wolfpack had the ball on an inbounds play, and coach Les Robinson wanted his players to do one thing: make sure the ball ended up in Todd Fuller's hands. As usual, N.C. State's fate would rest in the hands of its 6'11" senior center.
Sure enough. Fuller got the ball, was fouled immediately and then calmly swished both free throws to ice the game. That gave him 24 points for the evening, including 8 of 8 from the line. Sixteen of his points came in the frenetic second half when his teammates turned stone-cold. When it was over, State fans mobbed the Wolfpack players. "What a fabulous feeling that was," Fuller said afterward. "That win was as much for the fans as it was for us. They have backed us all along, and they deserved a piece of this too."
There haven't been a lot of bright spots in Raleigh in recent years, but by dint of hard work Fuller has become one. He has improved steadily each year he has been at State. He averaged 5.2 points per game as a freshman. 11.8 as a sophomore, 16.3 as a junior and, through Sunday, was at 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds as a senior—good for first and second, respectively, in the ACC. Beyond that, he has improved all other aspects of his game. For example, in his first three years, he made one three-point shot. This year he has already made 12, including 2 of 3 against North Carolina.
Earlier in the week, against Wake Forest's preseason All-America. Tim Duncan, Fuller had 19 points to Duncan's 21 as the Pack came from 14 points behind to go ahead by one, before losing a squeaker 66-62. "He's unique because he finds so many ways to hurt you," Duncan said later. "He's very smart about the game; he knows when to go inside, when to be outside."
Fuller's intelligence isn't limited to his court savvy. In his four years as a mathematics major at State he has gotten only one B in the classroom—in a computer science course called data abstractions and structures. Every other grade has been an A. His GPA with one semester left is 3.97.
Very little of Fuller's play this season has been below A level. He isn't all that fast, but he beats other centers down the floor consistently. Pro scouts, who always put so much emphasis on pure athletic ability, now concede that Fuller may be one of those players who makes up for physical deficiencies with hard work, an ability to improve and a feel for the game. Some say he may be a lottery pick in June, and most rate him behind only Duncan and UMass's Marcus Camby—both juniors—among collegiate centers.
After facing Fuller this season, both North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that they thought he would be a lottery pick. Smith's respect for Fuller was apparent last Saturday night: The Tar Heels double-or triple-learned him anytime he caught the ball in the low post. He responded by moving outside—as Duncan might have predicted he would—whence he hit four jump shots.
The victory pushed State's record to 3-6 in the ACC and 13-8 overall, a considerable improvement over the last three years, when the Wolf-pack finished 8-19, 11-19 and 12-15. Fuller wants desperately to participate in postseason play before his college career is over. "We've come a long way to get to where we are now and become a solid team," he says. "We just have to keep pushing to get where we want to be before the year's over. We're getting there."
Not fast, not spectacularly. Just getting there. Which is the way Fuller always seems to get the job done.