ATLANTA — North Carolina State is starting to feel like it can surprise some folks in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
After avenging last month's home loss to lowly Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack are ready to take on the big boys.
C.J. Williams scored 15 points, including a four-point play, and C.J. Leslie stepped up in the second half to carry N.C. State to a 61-52 victory over the Yellow Jackets on Thursday night.
The Wolfpack (18-7, 7-3 ACC) have their best mark in conference play at the 10-game mark since the 2005-06 season and trail the top three — Duke, North Carolina and Florida State — by only one game in the loss column.
Those just happen to be the next three opponents on the schedule.
"All you want is a chance," said coach Mark Gottfried, in his first year at N.C. State. "Let's go get 'em."
The Wolfpack got a typically balanced scoring attack, with four players in double figures. Leslie added 13 points — nine in the second half — while Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown had 10 apiece. Leslie also had 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
N.C. State came into the game with all five starters averaging in double figures.
"If you had said we'd have 18 wins at the beginning of the year, I would've thought that was pretty good," Gottfried said. "Now the game changes. We're going to slug it out all the way to the end. We've got a group of guys with a lot of confidence. That's what you've got to like about this team. They play very well together. They share the ball and pass the ball."
Wood finally missed a free throw, ending his ACC record streak at 66 in a row. Actually, he missed three, going 2-for-5 at the foul line.
"I'm definitely disappointed," he said. "I take a lot of pride in my free-throw shooting. Today was not my day. I'm just glad it happened in a game where we pulled out the win."
Kammeon Holsey had 17 points for Georgia Tech (9-15, 2-8), which couldn't overcome 32 percent shooting — including 1-for-17 from 3-point range.
"The toughest kid on the court was C.J. Williams," coach Brian Gregory said. "He was the difference in the game. He took advantage of defensive mistakes, made shots. He did a really good job."
The Yellow Jackets upset N.C. State 82-71 in Raleigh, giving Gregory his first ACC win. The Wolfpack could not afford another setback like that, not if they want to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.
"We found a way to get it done at the end of the game," Gottfried said.
Wood is looking forward to the next three games. The Wolfpack get a week off before traveling to No. 10 Duke, then have back-to-back home games against No. 15 Florida State and No. 5 North Carolina.
"We keep getting better. I think we definitely can be a top contender in the ACC," Wood said. "We kind of control our own destiny right now. We go into a tough environment next week. If we can scratch and claw and pull that one out, I think we'll be in really good shape."
Georgia Tech led much of the first half but poor shooting kept the home team from pushing out to a bigger advantage, even as they won the battle of the boards and seemed to outhustle the Wolfpack for every loose ball. Alex Johnson hit a jumper with just over a minute remaining that turned out to be the final points of the half, sending N.C. State to the locker room with a 26-24 lead.
Holsey just shook his head when recounting the most discouraging stat — 13 offensive rebounds in the first half produced only six second-chance points.
"We should've had the lead," he said, "instead of being down by two."
N.C. State started to put some distance on the Yellow Jackets when Williams hit a 3-pointer from the corner and then went tumbling out of bounds on a foul by Daniel Miller, trying desperately to get a hand up. Williams swished the free throw to complete the four-point play, giving the Wolfpack a 35-28 lead.
That would be his only points of the second half. He struggled a bit after his back tightened up, the remnants of a high school injury.
"I kind of tweaked it again," Williams said. "It's nothing really that bad. It's just getting back to 100 percent again."
Wood followed with a steal, drove for the basket and was fouled as well, going to the line looking to cap a quick 7-0 run. But he finally missed, ending his record streak a dozen free throws ahead of the previous ACC mark — 54 in a row by Duke's J.J. Redick. Wood missed two more in the final minute trying to ice the victory, but the Wolfpack already had enough points against the offensively challenged Yellow Jackets.
Glen Rice Jr. had 15 points, while Miller contributed 10 points and 11 rebounds. But guard Mfon Udofia, who had 17 points in the win over N.C. State, failed to make the score sheet in the rematch. He went 0-for-9 from the field, including five attempts outside the arc, for his second straight scoreless game.
"He's getting some quality looks," Gregory said. "I told him those shots were good shots."
Trailing 51-40, Georgia Tech put together a last gasp with a 7-0 spurt, capped by Brandon Reed's wild left-handed shot that banked in while he was fouled. He finished off the three-point play, but Brown made two free throws and Leslie tacked on another basket that helped seal the win.
Williams is looking forward to a little break, then the biggest game yet at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"Some of the guys kind of feel a little sluggish," he said. "But we're going to take this week to get ready for Duke and get back to 100 percent."