Richard Howell and Scott Wood started their careers playing for a struggling North Carolina State program. Now the seniors are part of a team looking forward to a potential-filled March.
C.J. Leslie had 19 points and 10 rebounds to help the Wolfpack beat Wake Forest 81-66 on Wednesday night in its final home game.
T.J. Warren added 15 points as the Wolfpack (22-8, 11-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) pushed to a double-digit lead in the first half and coasted after halftime.
N.C. State has won three straight and six of seven entering Saturday's regular-season finale at Florida State, keeping the Wolfpack in the chase with Virginia for the final first-round bye at next week's league tournament in Greensboro.
From there, N.C. State is hoping to top last year's surprise run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16. And Wood knows the team picked as the preseason ACC favorite will be judged by how it finishes.
"It's all about wins at the end of the day," the senior forward said. "Nobody's going to remember how many points you scored and lost. The main thing is you win games and that would be really fitting for this program and all my teammates and all my coaching staff if we could make a good run in the tournament."
The Wolfpack took charge with a 13-0 first-half run and held the Demon Deacons (12-17, 5-12) without a basket for 7½ minutes to build a 15-point halftime lead. N.C. State quickly pushed that lead past 20 points and never let Wake Forest even flirt with cutting it to single digits on the way to avenging a January road loss.
In that game, Wake Forest rallied from 16 down to win 86-84.
"Coach (Mark) Gottfried really wanted us to beat them, beat them bad," said freshman Rodney Purvis, who scored 14. "That's what he said."
Purvis said Gottfried is also selling his players on the importance of securing a top-four ACC tournament seed and avoiding having to play four games in four days to win the title.
Virginia (10-6 ACC) has the tiebreaker on N.C. State after beating the Wolfpack in January. The Cavaliers play at Florida State on Thursday.
For Wake Forest, it was another piece of a frustrating run to the finish for third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik.
His team had to play without starting point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, who didn't travel due to strep throat. The Demon Deacons missed their floor leader, especially once the Wolfpack woke up from an early slumber and picked up the pace.
"We knew what to expect and what a tough arena this is," Demon Deacons forward Travis McKie said. "We played well against them (before) and that was going to be extra motivation for them."
Wake Forest has lost nine of 11 since beating N.C. State on Jan. 22. Worse, the Demon Deacons fell to 1-24 on the road in ACC games under Bzdelik, including an 0-9 mark this year.
Freshman Devin Thomas had 13 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Demon Deacons, who shot 47 percent but never seriously threatened to stop their road woes after the opening 10 minutes. N.C. State shot 48 percent, scored 22 points off turnovers and had 22 second-chance points to maintain firm control.
N.C. State's 13-0 run started with an ominous sign for Wake Forest. With the Demon Deacons snoozing, Wood quickly inbounded the ball to Warren, who threw home a dunk before anyone wearing black and gold could react - a play that drew a frustrated yell from Bzdelik.
Warren capped the run with a jumper for a 28-16 lead with 4½ minutes left before halftime. A few minutes later, Wood got in on the act too, faking McKie off his feet and burying a 3-pointer while drawing contact for a four-point play.
Things didn't get any better after the break, either. Lorenzo Brown found Leslie unguarded under the basket for a dunk on the Wolfpack's first possession of the second half, prompting an angry Bzdelik to immediately gesture for a timeout. He spent the entire stoppage on an animated rant that included slamming his clipboard on the court.
Minutes later, Bzdelik fired off another timeout after back-to-back transition baskets - the second an alley-oop dunk from Brown off a feed from Leslie - pushed the lead to 21 points before the first media timeout of the second half.
Howell finished with nine points and five rebounds, while Wood had eight for N.C. State.