RALEIGH — N.C. State has spent the first half of the season trying to prove it's a better team than it was a year ago.
Wednesday's paint-by-the-numbers 78-44 win over Delaware State is just the latest example of the Wolfpack's progress in coach Mark Gottfried's first season.
Last season, State needed a last-gasp shot by Scott Wood to eek out a 72-70 win over the same Delaware State team. And this season? The game, for all intents and purposes, was over by halftime.
A 22-0 run to close the half, after the Hornets had played the first 13 minutes pretty much to a standstill, eliminated any need for late-game heroics from Wood or anyone else in a white jersey.
Wood (14 points) and the regulars got to watch the final 5 minutes of the game from the comfort of the bench.
The question now for State, which closes its nonconference schedule at 11-4, is can it show the same type of improvement against the ACC?
Maryland comes to the RBC Center on Sunday for Gottfried's first ACC game. State's coming off of back-to-back 5-11 finishes in the conference. The program has put together two good months before conference play only to fizzle out in the league.
The difference in execution and effort, between this Pack team and the last, was evident in Wednesday's rout, even with a MEAC team as the point of comparison.
The Hornets trailed just 20-18 after Tahj Tate's jumper at 7:19 in the first half. The Pack was sluggish in the first 13 minutes — perhaps looking ahead to Sunday's game — but found its gear in the final 7 minutes.
Senior guard Alex Johnson, as he has the past half dozen games, came off the bench and got the Pack offense going. He followed his own layup with a 3-pointer to make it 29-18 at 5:19.
The Pack kept going, while the hard-working Hornets couldn't hit water from a boat. Casey Walker's putback attempt, which rolled in and out, typified the Hornets struggles from the floor.
State had no such problems finding points. C.J. Leslie (14 points) flushed his own alley-oop after one of his two first-half steals. He tossed the ball under his left arm and then finished the dunk with flair at 3:40.
Lorenzo Brown had a coast-to-coast layup during the 22-0 run and there was a parade at the free-throw line, where State has been much improved over the past six games.
The Hornets more than doubled their scoring output in the second half but it wasn't enough to keep pace. The Pack led by 30, 72-42, with the better part of 4 minutes left.
That opened the door for fan favorites Staats Battle and Kendall Smith to get some quality minutes. The walk-ons were spectators in last year's close call with Delaware State. They were hoisting 3s on Wednesday.
What a difference a year makes.
Photo: N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown passes the ball behind his back during the second half of the Wolfpack's 78-44 victory over Delaware State. ETHAN HYMAN - firstname.lastname@example.org