GREENSBORO, N.C. - North Carolina State forward Julius Hodge has been driven by a lifelong goal and a desire to make amends for last season when his team was knocked out of the NCAA men's basketball tournament by Connecticut in the second round.
The only problem was that if the Wolfpack lost to Wake Forest yesterday in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament at Greensboro Coliseum, it probably wasn't going to be invited to the Big Dance.
N.C. State (18-11) may still be on the proverbial bubble, but the Wolfpack should get a bid just to showcase Hodge. On a day when he had to be great, the skinny, 6-foot-6 sophomore from Harlem in New York City scored a game-high 31 points as No. 4 seed N.C. State upset top-seeded Wake Forest, 87-83.
If Hodge has another great performance today in the championship game against No. 3-seeded Duke, then he has to be the tournament's Most Valuable Player. He had only 10 points Friday night against Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals, but this is a guy who can do it all.
He can handle the ball or move without it. He can score or rebound. He plays good defense, which is why Wake Forest forward Josh Howard had a quiet 21 points yesterday, shooting only 6-for-21 from the field. Wherever Howard went, Hodge was close by, sometimes right in his face.
"They were nothing short of sensational," said N.C. State coach Herb Sendek, alluding to Hodge and fellow forward Marcus Melvin, who finished with 23 points. "I admire the poise and composure with which they play. At this time of year, your best players have to be at their best."
Are you listening University of Maryland?
When Wake Forest went ahead 37-30 with 1:08 left in the first half, Hodge took away the Demon Deacons' momentum with a three-point shot with 54 seconds left to cut the lead to 37-33 at the half. Poor Wake Forest. The kid was just getting warmed up.
Hodge was only 2-for-8 from the field in the first half, and 1-for-4 from the three-point line. He finished 8-for-17, including 4-for-7 in three-point attempts. He kept Howard in foul trouble and blew by anybody else the Demon Deacons sent out to guard him. Hodge was 11-for-12 from the foul line.
"He played an excellent game," Howard said. "As far as matchups go, everybody on our team guarded him, not just me. He just stepped up and made some big shots."
Big shots? They were huge.
Hodge opened the second half with two three-pointers, one of which turned into a four-point play as he was fouled on the shot that gave N.C. State a 52-41 lead with 13:33 left to play.
Hodge converted on another four-point play with 10:34 left to put N.C. State ahead 56-48, and by then he began waving and finger-pointing to the crowd.
When Wake Forest climbed within 63-57 with 7:12 remaining, Hodge again broke the momentum on a short jumper. Hodge scored on another three-pointer about two minutes later, and scored again off the rebound of his own shot with 3:26 left. He then converted one of two foul shots with 1:32 left as N.C. State went ahead 76-69 with 1:32 remaining, and he sealed the win by converting on two shots with nine seconds left.
Hodge played 36 minutes, and you could see he was tired because he spent most of the final 10 minutes with his hands above his head trying to collect air during each stoppage in the action. The Herculean effort was spurred on by N.C. State's 78-72 loss to Wake Forest last Saturday.
"Last week's loss really struck us hard, like a rib shot," Hodge said. "It really hurt us last week, but it gave us confidence. If we stuck to our game plan, we knew we could beat Wake Forest, even though they were highly ranked."
Besides losing the game, Wake Forest (24-5) may have lost a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But Hodge was not feeling sorry for the Demon Deacons. Last year against Connecticut, he got lit up by Huskies guard Caron Butler for a career-high 34 points. The three that hurt the most came with 23.4 seconds left when Hodge fouled Butler in the middle of a three-point shot. The Wolfpack was trailing by only a point at the time, and Hodge's job was to defend Butler, not foul. Butler hit all three free throws, and the Huskies won, 77-74.
"I know I let my teammates down, and I'm not going to let that happen again," Hodge said.
Those words speak volumes about Hodge's character. A year ago, he was disturbed that he didn't get the ACC Rookie of the Year award despite leading all freshmen in scoring with a 10.7 average while starting in 33 games. Is he cocky? Yes, but at least he is turning down the decibels.
Forget the stuff last year about him pretending to ride on a horse and whipping it into a gallop after hitting a big three-pointer. The between-the-legs dribble coming up court with no one guarding him is more for show than showing someone up.
A year ago, he upset officials and players around the conference with his trash-talking. He became Public Enemy No. 1 in College Park when he delivered a forearm to the back of guard Steve Blake's neck. That earned him a one-game suspension.
But the act has been toned down. He is spending more time in the gym, less time ticking people off. Sendek still gets phone calls about him hanging out shooting in the gym late at night.
"My dream is not just to make the NBA and not just to become an NBA All-Star," said Hodge, who averaged 17.4 points and has become the unchallenged leader of the Wolfpack. "I want to become an NBA Hall of Famer."
But first, he wants to get back in the NCAA tournament. He has something to prove from last year.