RALEIGH, N.C. – C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell just weren't going to let this game get away. It's why No. 20 North Carolina State celebrated a huge win against No. 1 Duke.
Leslie scored 25 points, including six straight during a key second-half run, to help the Wolfpack beat the Blue Devils 84-76 on Saturday.
Howell added 16 points and 18 rebounds in a relentless performance for the Wolfpack (14-2, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) in a matchup of the teams predicted to finish 1-2 in the league.
N.C. State was picked for the first time in nearly four decades to win the league, though two early losses drained some buzz.
No longer. Now N.C. State is back on everyone's radar, while the Blue Devils (15-1, 2-1) are no longer unbeaten.
Seth Curry scored 22 despite missing the final minutes with an ankle injury for Duke, which shot 45 percent and hung around early by crashing the boards for second-chance baskets. But the Blue Devils had no answer after halftime for Leslie and Howell, a duo that helped the Wolfpack lead all second half.
"They played well," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I thought we played our butts off. ... Our kids played with a lot of heart, their kids played with a lot of heart, and they were a little better than we were."
Fittingly, Howell hauled in the rebound on Duke's final shot to end this one, then passed the ball to Lorenzo Brown as Leslie began jumping around near midcourt to celebrate. As the horn sounded, Brown flung the ball high into the air while students and Wolfpack fans stormed to the court - the charge led by a fan in a wheelchair - to celebrate.
Fans soon lifted Leslie and Brown on their shoulders amid the sea of red-clad celebration.
"I saw the whole court and I couldn't see a bit of court," Leslie said. "I couldn't see one part of the floor. It was just people everywhere. So that's going to be a remembrance that we'll never forget. We'll always keep this in our minds."
This was the kind of moment N.C. State fans long hungry to challenge perennial heavyweights Duke and North Carolina atop the league have been hoping for all season. Their team certainly rose to the occasion, whether it was Leslie performing to his status as the preseason ACC player of the year or Howell attacking the boards and scoring on second-half putbacks that fully seized momentum for N.C. State.
With his team protecting a 58-57 lead, Leslie went to work, knocking down a jumper then getting past Josh Hairston in the lane for another bucket. On the next possession, he muscled the ball up between two defenders, and soon the Wolfpack pushed its biggest lead to 67-57 with 7:44 left.
The Blue Devils got no closer than four again, with Leslie scoring over Mason Plumlee inside to answer the Blue Devils' last push with 1:41 left. The Wolfpack closed this one out confidently, hitting eight straight and 9 of 10 free throws in the final minute to stay in front.
N.C. State shot 51 percent to earn its 10th straight win and its first 3-0 start in ACC play since the 1988-89 season.
The Blue Devils played the final 3-plus minutes without Curry, who crumpled to the court after slipping on a wet spot on the court. They were already without starting forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury and was on crutches on the Duke bench for this one.