Jericole Hellems couldn’t miss Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena.
N.C. State’s senior forward knocked down back-to-back threes in the opening two-and-a-half minutes against Louisiana Tech (4-2) and never looked back as he led the Wolfpack to a 90-81 win over the Bulldogs.
It was a career day for Hellems, who knocked down 6 of his 8 attempts from beyond the arc as Kevin Keatts’ team notched its best win of the season with the victory over a La. Tech, which is No. 99 in KenPom’s rankings.
“I thought we played a really good game against a very good basketball team,” Keatts said. “... We knew when we scheduled these guys that they were going to be tough.”
N.C. State improved to 5-1 on the season as Hellems finished with a career-high 31 points, shooting 52.6 percent from the field.
He had 21 at the half, knocking down 3-pointers from the top of the arc to the right wing.
“Tremendous,” said Keatts of the senior’s performance. “... Give credits to his teammates for finding him and making sure that he got the basketball.”
The Wolfpack’s top returning scorer, Hellems averaged 11.6 points in N.C. State’s first five games of the season while shooting 33.3 percent from the field. Against Texas Southern last Sunday he was 2 of 9 (22.2 percent) from the field for 10 points.
Saturday afternoon off a fast break with 14:27 remaining in the game, he knocked down a three to the top left of the arc as he hit 26 points for the game — surpassing his previous 25-point career high.
“I just thought he let the game come to him,” Keatts said. “He took great shots tonight, didn’t force anything — played like a veteran guy.”
With 11:08 remaining, Hellems picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench for a stretch.
Sophomore guard Cam Hayes added 14 points, dishing out five assists and going 8 for 8 from the free throw line as the Wolfpack hit the double bonus in the end. Junior guard Casey Morsell also had 14 points.
Forward Kenneth Lofton Jr. led the way for the Bulldogs as the preseason All-Conference USA honoree turned in his latest double double, this time with 36 points and 18 rebounds.
“When they throw him the basketball he puts a lot of pressure on your defense,” said Keatts in discussing the challenge the 6-7, 275-pound freshman presents. “What’s happened now is they put three other guys in the game that can shoot the basketball. So we wasn’t able to really come off that much and be able to help a lot. So we wanted to play a little more one on one in the post. Our game plan worked.”
La. Tech won the battle on the offensive and defensive boards, finishing with the 37-27 rebounding advantage.
While the Wolfpack maintained control throughout the game, leading the way for all but the opening 28 seconds after La. Tech knocked down the first field goal, it was competitive for stretches.
N.C. State’s largest lead came with 9:30 remaining in the first half as the Pack was up 30-15. La. Tech cut that lead to four with 2:46 remaining in the opening 20 minutes. The Wolfpack led 41-33 at the break.
With Hellems leading the way, N.C. State shot 51.6 percent from the field, including 47.8 percent from three.
Redshirt sophomore guard Dereon Seabron had 10 points on 5 of 6 shooting for the Wolfpack along with seven rebounds, five steals and five assists.
Along with Hellems, sophomore forward Ebenezer Dowuona got off to a hot start for N.C. State. He had back-to-back dunks in the first three minutes, finishing with 10 points and hitting 5 of 5 from the field.
“He was great,” said Keatts, who explained that he is encouraged by the development his big men have shown. “He was able to rim run. We hit him. He did a great job of catching the ball in the post, slowing down, making some shots. He did a good job and he’s getting better.”