Stalwart Howell keys NC State bounce back

NEW YORK -- Richard Howell was dazed after C.J. Leslie inadvertently popped him with a flailing arm off a first-half rebound.

The senior forward came out of the game at the dead ball, staggered back to the bench, sat down and was given a full workup by the North Carolina State athletic training staff.

They tested his balance, eyesight and strength to see if he had suffered a concussion.

He didn’t. Howell said he was scared for a moment, since he had suffered a concussion against Maryland as a sophomore.

The tingling and the numbing in his upper body had him nervous. But it started to subside and all he had was a stinger in his shoulder. He told Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried that he could play in the second half.

Good decision.

If Howell continues to play the way he did in the second half against Connecticut on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, the Wolfpack have a shot to live up to their expectations.

Howell had a double-double -- in the second half -- with 11 of his 13 points and all of his 10 boards coming in the final 20 minutes of NC State’s much-needed 69-65 victory over the Huskies at Madison Square Garden.

“He’s our blue-collar guy, our most consistent guy except for when he gets in foul trouble," said NC State assistant coach Bobby Lutz. “He gives us great energy. He’s undersized, but he’s relentless and has great enthusiasm and productivity."

Guard Lorenzo Brown, wing Leslie and sharpshooter Scott Wood were NC State’s headline names heading into the season, along with freshman Rodney Purvis. Howell tended to be overlooked.

But if the Wolfpack are to be ACC champs as predicted, Howell must be the anchor of this team. NC State hadn’t played well yet, losing badly to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, nearly dropping a game to UNC-Asheville and then losing respectably at Michigan last week.

The Huskies didn’t defend the Wolfpack well but still knocked NC State back a number of times. That is, until Howell became a beast on the boards.

“He’s a monster," said Wood. “What can I say? He’s the best rebounder out there. He’s a great player for us. He works so hard in practice, and if he keeps doing what he’s been doing, we’re going to be a dangerous team."

If Howell doesn’t play in the second half, the Huskies might have won this game, with Enosch Wolf playing well enough inside to cause NC State fits. Had NC State lost this game, there would have been ample second-guessing about the true potential of this squad.

“Whatever coach wants me to do to be a difference-maker, I’ll do it," said Howell. “This was huge for us. It’s definitely a step closer to what we want to be. We lost to Oklahoma State, Michigan and didn’t beat UNC-Asheville by what we should have. We learned from it and progressed."

Duke is the class of the ACC. North Carolina is young, inexperienced and a bit of an unknown right now. NC State is in line with Miami, Maryland and suddenly surging Virginia Tech in a wide-open ACC race come January.

NC State still has oodles of talent but will succeed only if Howell is a constant presence in the paint. The flash plays by Leslie and Purvis, the 3-pointers by Wood or the drives by Brown (although he still turns the ball over too much) are all necessary. But none of it is as important as Howell patrolling the paint.

Reaching the Sweet 16 last season was a surprise. But if the Wolfpack are going to replicate that run, they must defend the drive, shore up on 3s and control the backboard more effectively. Gottfried said before the game that he was still figuring this club out as the veterans adapt to the heralded newcomers. Howell showed his teammates his toughness Tuesday by playing through pain and discomfort. NC State is a work in progress, which puts even more emphasis on such a valued talent.