Freshman J.J. Hickson had a season-high 33 points Saturday to help North Carolina State hold off Western Carolina 74-62.
Ben McCauley scored 12 for the Wolfpack (9-3), who had a surprisingly tough time extending its winning streak to five games. N.C. State trailed by nine at halftime and had to fight to the final minutes to hold off an instate program determined to prove itself against an Atlantic Coast Conference team.
Brandon Giles certainly did his part, scoring 25 points to lead the Catamounts (4-8). But Western Carolina had no answer for Hickson, the 6-foot-9, 242-pound forward who proved unstoppable when the game hung in the balance.
Hickson finished 10-for-11 from the field, surpassing his previous high of 31 points set in the opener against William & Mary. He also hit 13 of 16 free throws and pulled down 13 rebounds to go with three blocks and two steals in 33 minutes.
This didn't seem to be a very dangerous game on the schedule for the Wolfpack, which entered the season with hopes of contending for the ACC title. N.C. State had won all 12 meetings in the series by an average margin of 33 points, while Western Carolina had lost 100-52 at Indiana and managed just 35 points in a loss at Illinois this month.
But Western Carolina's hot shooting early - the Catamounts made their first six 3-pointers - and a sluggish start by the Wolfpack made this game look like anything but a walkover. Giles scored 16 points to help the Catamounts take a 41-32 halftime lead, and N.C. State didn't manage its first lead until midway through the second half.
But, with the game tied at 55, Hickson took control. His free throw with 6:09 left put the Wolfpack ahead to stay, starting a stretch of eight straight points by the rookie that helped N.C. State slowly gain control.
His transition dunk - set up when Courtney Fells blocked Giles' 3-pointer from behind at the other end - made it 58-55. He followed with a three-point play and an inside score off a feed from Fells to make it 63-60 with 4:02 left.
Then, after a pair of free throws from Michael Porrini, N.C. State scored the game's final 11 points, with Hickson going 4-for-4 at the line in the final minutes to cap his big day.
N.C. State stepped up defensively in the second half, holding Western Carolina to just 21 points on 8-for-33 shooting after the break. N.C. State shot 51 percent for the game.