After waiting weeks into the season to have a full complement of players, North Carolina State is starting to find some chemistry, depth and more scoring options.
T.J. Warren scored 22 points to help the Wolfpack beat Northwestern 69-48 on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the team's third straight win — all coming since the debut of 7-foot-1 fifth-year senior Jordan Vandenberg from a preseason ankle injury.
Vandenberg's inside presence has allowed the Wolfpack (5-2) to settle into more natural rotations and playing roles. That much was on display against the Wildcats (4-5), from the way N.C. State dominated in the paint and attacked Northwestern's zone defense to how it defended the 3-point shot.
"What's happening now is we're beginning to develop some chemistry and we're beginning to develop some depth," coach Mark Gottfried said. "... (Vandenberg's return) helps our depth. It just helps kind of the way we like to play with two post players and two wings.
"It just fits better for us. I think it's been a good thing."
On Wednesday night, Warren was in his usual high-scoring form with 16 points by halftime. But Ralston Turner (13 points) and freshman Lennard Freeman (10 points, 10 rebounds) both matched or turned in their best statistical performances of the season.
Vandenberg finished with 12 points and five blocks, scoring in double figures in consecutive games for the first time in his career. He had averaged less than a basket a game before the past three games.
"They're just getting adjusted and getting used to it and getting confidence game by game," Warren said of his supporting cast. "The new guys are getting comfortable with the offense and we're going to progress with each game of the season."
But N.C. State led by 11 at halftime and 23 points late to snap a five-game losing streak in the annual interconference matchup. The Wolfpack shot 46 percent and dominated inside to take a 38-10 edge in points in the paint.
But, more importantly to Gottfried, his players carried over their defensive work from practice into the game.
Northwestern shot just 25 percent (13 for 52) for first-year coach Chris Collins, who was making a return to the region after spending the past 13 years as an assistant to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in nearby Durham.
"I thought we got good shots from the perimeter that we didn't hit and I really felt like Vandenberg's presence in the paint made us miss a lot in the lane," Collins said. "He's a real presence for them defensively and he blocked five shots, but he probably altered six or seven others just by having to shoot over him or get around him."
"Look, our margin for error is very slim," he added. "For us to beat a good team, especially on the road, we have to shoot the ball well."
N.C. State's last Challenge win came against Michigan in November 2006 under Sidney Lowe. The Wolfpack lost to Northwestern here in the Challenge in 2009, with four of the five straight Challenge losses coming by at least 11 points.
But with Warren flirting with his third straight 30-point performance by halftime, N.C. State was in control from the start and has looked much sharper since its surprising overtime home loss to North Carolina Central on Nov. 20.
"Even after that game, the important thing for us was to just stay positive, be positive," Gottfried said. "We've got a young group. They're learning. We're seeing now that we're a lot different with Jordan. I knew all those things, but at the same time, I don't want our players to get down on themselves right now."
Drew Crawford scored 17 to lead the Wildcats on a frustrating night for Collins. Referee Roger Ayers whistled him for a technical foul early in the second half after Crawford drove into the paint but didn't get a whistle as Vandenberg blocked his shot.
Vandenberg followed Warren's free throws on Collins' technical with a hook shot to make it 39-22 with 17:34 left.
Northwestern got as close as 15 before the Wolfpack answered with six straight points, with Freeman scoring on a stickback and then on a transition dunk off a feed from fellow rookie Anthony "Cat" Barber to push the margin to 50-29 with 10:09 left.
The Wildcats didn't get closer than 17 again.