C.J. Leslie leads Wolfpack revival

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As two of the heroes from NC State’s 66-63 victory over Georgetown on Sunday walked through a hallway toward the postgame news conference, C.J. Leslie remained in the locker room.

He sat on a blue folding chair with a towel draped over his knees as reporters scurried over a pile of warm-ups, jerseys and shoes in the middle of the sardine can that doubled as a temporary Q&A hub at Nationwide Arena.

Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown, the two young men who made clutch plays throughout the third-round NCAA tournament win, deserved the opportunity to represent the program in the postgame presser.

Wood scored 14 points and sank four of his five 3-point attempts.

Brown earned Mr. Clutch honors with a variety of plays in the final minutes of a win that sent the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.

Brown’s jump shot with 2:15 to play gave the Wolfpack a seven-point edge. He hit 5 of 7 free throws in the last 71 seconds of the game. His last free throw gave the Wolfpack a three-point cushion, so even if Jason Clark’s 3-pointer at the buzzer had found the rim -- it was an air ball -- the game would have gone into overtime.

But players and head coach Mark Gottfried agreed that Leslie, a player whose desire has been criticized throughout his career, salvaged the victory.

He started and finished a 15-2 run that turned a 25-15 deficit with 5 minutes and 17 seconds to play in the first half into a 30-27 halftime lead.

“There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to take this game,” said Leslie, who scored 14 points and also added eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals. “I brought the energy. Scott Wood brought the 3s. And [Brown] brought the taking them off the dribble and whatever else he did.”

The game-saving run commenced when Leslie hit a jump shot with 5:03 remaining in the first. It ended when Leslie ripped the ball from Otto Porter’s arms, raced up the floor and dunked on the other end.

Leslie played tough for 40 minutes.

It took the Wolfpack some time to compete with the energy that’s expected in the NCAA tournament. But Leslie’s effort on defense and offense was consistent.

His steal late in the first half of Sunday’s game set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, according to Leslie’s teammates.

“The one thing I want to credit to C.J. is the last play of the [first half]. He got that steal. That kind of uplifted us a little bit,” said C.J. Williams, who scored 14 points. “It was a nip-and-tuck kind of game. That gave us a three-point lead. Even though it may seem minuscule to a lot of people, it’s a very big confidence-booster for us to go into half with a steal, the momentum and everything.”

Multiple NBA draft analysts, including DraftExpress.com, have questioned the talented forward’s motor since he joined the program last season. “If he's going to be successful at the next level, he'd be well served to show a more consistent motor running the floor,” DraftExpress.com notes.

Even Gottfried said he’d heard a multitude of negative remarks about Leslie when he took the job last year.

“It feels great. People are going to talk. I can’t worry about that. I just gotta play my game and do what the coach says and try to go as far as I can go,” Leslie said.

Those previous knocks seemed obsolete during NC State’s win over Georgetown. Leslie flew up and down the floor. He got flagged for goaltending after racing to contest one of Clark’s layups.

Leslie was completely dialed into everything that was happening around him. And he was passionate.

“When you’re such a good player, they’re always going to find some way to criticize him, no matter what. I’ve never questioned C.J. Leslie’s motor,” said Richard Howell, who recorded nine points and 10 rebounds. “I feel he’s one of the few players when [stuff] gets rough, he’s going to go in, he’s going to battle with you.”

Gottfried’s arrival has reinvigorated Wolfpack basketball, which will play in the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years. Now, it’s impossible to ignore NC State locally and nationally.

Gottfried led the Wolfpack to the tournament even after they lost four in a row in February. Hard to find many similarities to that squad and the one that’s playing with a definite swagger right now.

Gottfried has helped Leslie and his teammates develop.

Both entered the season amid doubts.

Gottfried hadn’t coached since his departure from Alabama in 2009. Few knew what to expect from him.

Leslie entered the year facing the same questions about his drive and off-court behavior. He started the season by serving a brief suspension for receiving improper benefits.

Gottfried told reporters Saturday that he refuses to call Leslie “C.J.” because of the criticism he heard about the 6-foot-8 forward after he seized control of the program. He calls him by his first name, Calvin.

“When I took this job, every time I turned around somebody was making a negative comment about C.J. Leslie: Doesn’t play hard. He’s disinterested. You’re not going to be able to reach him,” Gottfried said prior to his team’s win over Georgetown. “So my thing was it’s time for a change. It’s time for you to have a fresh start. So for me we’ll change your name.”

Leslie said Gottfried focused on the strengths of every player on the roster and implemented them within his system. That approach helped players cling to Gottfried.

“He did a good job of just knowing everybody [personally]. That’s the start of it. Just getting to know everybody and what they can do best,” Leslie said during Saturday’s media session.

In the final minute of Sunday’s game this rebirth could have come to an end. Georgetown fought back and Clark had a chance to tie at the buzzer.

“It was a good look,” Leslie said.

Nope. Not yet.

Clark missed and the Wolfpack moved forward behind a coach and star player who continue to prove their doubters wrong.