March 18, 2005
By JOHN KEKIS
AP Sports Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - Julius Hodge stormed into the locker room, slapped his teammates on the back and shouted in jubilation. He would play another day.
Hodge had 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds Friday and keyed a late 16-4 surge to lead North Carolina State to a 75-63 comeback victory over Charlotte in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It was a far cry from a year ago, when Hodge fouled out of a second-round loss to Vanderbilt and left the court in tears - the lowest moment of his stellar career.
Now, the Wolfpack moves on to play Sunday against either Connecticut or Central Florida in the Syracuse Regional.
"Last year's in the past. I just told the guys that, 'This is it, we have to step it up,"' said Hodge, who upped his career points total to 2,009. "We know we have to play through deficits."
Indeed. The 10th-seeded Wolfpack (20-13) faced a big one early against the 49ers (21-8), falling behind by 14 points less than five minutes into the game.
Hot-shooting Brendan Plavich drained four straight 3s in the first nine minutes. Eddie Basden tossed in another 3, and his basket with 11:29 left put the 49ers on top 23-9.
"We got into a hole and I told the guys, 'If we lose, we're going home tonight, and we're not going to do that, not in Julius' last game,"' said Ilian Evtimov, who finished with 12 points.
Charlotte held a 36-29 halftime lead and stayed ahead before Hodge began to assert himself as he often does late in games.
Less than three minutes after scoring his 2,000th career point, Hodge converted a three-point play to pull the Wolfpack within 49-45 at 14:21. He then beat Basden, the two-time Conference USA defensive player of the year, along the baseline at 10:32. After Plavich threw up an airball, Cameron Bennerman hit a pull-up jumper to give the Wolfpack their first lead since Hodge scored the first basket of the game.
"The leadership that Julius and some of the guys gave today was extraordinary," North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek said. "The key for us was even though we weren't shooting particularly well, we were able to turn the game around with our defense."
And Bennerman led the way. He held Plavich scoreless in the second half while scoring all 12 of his points.
"I couldn't breathe out there," said Plavich, who led the nation this season with nearly four 3-pointers a game and was 5-for-7 from long range in the first half. "He did a great job of doing whatever he had to do to keep me from making shots."
"I just stuck with him," Bennerman said. "He has unlimited range. He was shooting from half court in some video clips we saw."
The 49ers never recovered. After Curtis Withers' free throw tied the game at 59 with 4:15 left, Hodge led the decisive closing run. Slapping the floor with his hands and shouting encouragement at his teammates, Hodge fed Bennerman for an easy layup, nabbed an offensive rebound to set up a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Evtimov, and fed Andrew Brackman for a fast-break dunk to give the Wolfpack an insurmountable 69-61 lead with 81 seconds left.
"Somebody had to make a run," Plavich said. "We made our run first, and we tried to stay on top of them. We knew they were going to come back with a run eventually because that's what they do."
Six minutes into the game, Charlotte was 7-for-8 from the floor and led 18-9, and the Wolfpack had missed all five 3-pointers they had attempted.
Brackman, who had 16 points, scored six straight to lead North Carolina State back on a 16-8 run as Charlotte finally began missing. A three-point play by Hodge narrowed the lead to 29-20, and a fast-break dunk by Gavin Grant off a turnover by Plavich at the top of the key had the Wolfpack within 31-25 with 3:31 left.
And when 6-foot-9 Cedric Simmons blocked a 3-point attempt by Plavich in the right corner, the Wolfpack stormed downcourt and Engin Atsur's layup made it 31-27 with just over two minutes remaining.
Basden and Withers each scored 15 for the seventh-seeded 49ers and E.J. Drayton had 11.