N.C. State solidifies itself as ACC contender by toppling previously unbeaten Duke

They vacated their seats, moved down closer to the court and began preparing to storm the PNC Arena floor with almost a minute to go, so eager to celebrate they couldn't wait until the clock read all zeros.

Some NC State fans wore red-and-white striped suspenders and wigs. Others were clad in Wolfpack jerseys and face paint. One was even in a wheelchair. The only thing they all had in common is none had witnessed a victory this momentous by the home team in many years.

In a must-win game for NC State to solidify itself as a legitimate ACC title threat, the Wolfpack delivered. C.J. Leslie scored 25 points and Richard Howell added 16 points and 18 rebounds as NC State roared to its first victory over the nation's No. 1 team in nine years, handing previously undefeated Duke an 84-76 loss.

NC State's victory was validation for all the preseason hype the Wolfpack received after adding a decorated recruiting class to the core of a team that made a surprising Sweet 16 run last year. The Wolfpack fell out of the top 25 in November after suffering a lethargic loss to Oklahoma State and a competitive setback at Michigan, but they've now won 10 straight and they're 3-0 in ACC play.

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If Saturday's outcome was a disappointment for Duke, the effort shouldn't have been.

Despite playing on the road without injured forward Ryan Kelly and losing Seth Curry to an apparent left leg injury in the final four minutes, the Blue Devils led much of the first half and were still within one with 10 minutes to go. They couldn't get enough defensive stops to secure the victory, but they validated their status as national title contenders when healthy by staying within striking distance.

What kept Duke in it was the combination of Curry's outside shooting, Mason Plumlee's interior production and some good first-half work on the offensive glass. The Blue Devils had 11 of their 12 offensive rebounds before halftime, five by Kelly's primary replacements, Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson.

Where Duke did miss Kelly was on the defensive end. Neither Hairston nor Jefferson were any match for Leslie, who almost singlehandedly fouled out Jefferson in 11 minutes and scorched Hairston in transition and off the dribble.

It was Leslie who scored six straight points to enable the PNC Arena crowd to exhale after a 3-pointer by Curry trimmed the NC State lead to one with 10:33 remaining. It was also Leslie who delivered a key layup with just under two minutes to go to extend the Wolfpack lead to six and allow the NC State students to begin their court-storming preparations.

A year ago, NC State gagged away a 20-point lead at Duke in the final 12 minutes and suffered a heartbreaking 78-73 loss to the Blue Devils. Saturday's victory helped dull the sting of that defeat and gave the Wolfpack some long-awaited bragging rights over at least one of their Tobacco Road rivals.

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