RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—J.J. Hickson wasted no time finding his place in North Carolina State’s loaded frontcourt.
The freshman scored 31 points on 12-for-12 shooting Thursday night, and No. 21 N.C. State beat William & Mary 66-47 for the program’s 14th straight season-opening victory and second in two tries under coach Sidney Lowe.
Brandon Costner added 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Wolfpack, who played tough defense the entire way to get off to a successful start in a year filled with high expectations. Still, it was Hickson’s big day that had his teammates almost giddy with excitement.
“I’ve been telling y’all he was a beast in all these interviews,” senior Gavin Grant said of the 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American. “But nobody would listen to me. I can’t wait to see him play against a bigger and stronger opponent, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to have his way with pretty much anybody he faces this year.”
The Wolfpack return four starters from last year’s 20-16 team that beat rivals Duke and North Carolina while also making a run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final. With Hickson in the mix, N.C. State was picked to finish third in the league this year and regarded by many to have the nation’s top front line with the 6-9 Costner and the 6-10 Ben McCauley.
But it’s hard to imagine anyone expected this kind of performance against the Tribe (0-2). Hickson finished with the second-best scoring day for a freshman in school history, trailing only Ernie Myers’ 35 points against Duke in January 1983. His 31 points marked the best outing for an N.C. State freshman in his debut, and he also set a school record for most field goals without a miss.
“It’s phenomenal,” Hickson said, “but as long as we get the ‘W,’ it doesn’t matter to me.”
Hickson proved to an impossible matchup for the Tribe, repeatedly finishing baskets in the paint while often using his 242-pound frame to bounce off a defender along the way.
He managed 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the first half and finished with seven rebounds in 30 minutes, showing an unrelenting style that had the RBC Center crowd chanting his name and giving him a standing ovation when he left with 56.5 seconds left.
“The difference in the game was a dadgum freshman who’s probably going to be a lottery pick (in the NBA draft),” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. “We fronted him. We played behind him. We double- and triple-teamed him. Nothing worked.”
Perhaps the biggest question facing Lowe now is how to divide minutes between his frontcourt players. Hickson’s big game meant McCauley, who averaged 14.4 points to anchor the middle for the Wolfpack last season, spent much of the game on the bench and finished with two points in 14 minutes.
Lowe said the rotation could change each game, adding that Hickson was the best fit against the Tribe but noting, “Certainly I know what Ben is capable of doing and his time will come.”
The Wolfpack learned little about their point guard situation. Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand got the start and finished with two points, five rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes, and freshman Javier Gonzalez had a point and a steal in 12 minutes off the bench. Gonzalez is coming off a thumb injury, and Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson is not eligible until the second semester.
N.C. State helped itself most by playing tough defense, forcing William & Mary into 16 straight missed shots spanning halftime and taking a 39-26 lead at the break.
The Tribe managed to get as close as five with about 8 1/2 minutes left, but Costner answered with a 3-pointer from the left corner to start a 17-3 run to close the game.
Hickson also came up big during the spurt, throwing down a transition dunk, hitting a spinning layup and completing a three-point play as the Wolfpack pulled away. Hickson closed out his effort by scoring on a stickback and finding Courtney Fells inside for a layup before departing with the Wolfpack leading by 19.
Laimis Kisielius scored 12 points for the Tribe, who shot 29 percent for the game.