Tracy Smith finally started again for North Carolina State. Of more importance to the Wolfpack was how he finished.
Smith scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half of his return to the starting lineup, leading N.C. State past pesky Elon 87-72 on Wednesday night.
"We're a different team when he's in there," N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said. "He's another option, he's a valuable option — he was our first option. ... Our team is different, because we have that focus, we have that confidence where, if we throw it in there (to Smith), he can make something good happen."
C.J. Leslie scored 19 points and fellow freshman Ryan Harrow added 17 for the Wolfpack (10-4), who twice trailed by 10 in the first half but shot 62.5 percent (30 for 48) and used a strong second half to win their fourth straight heading into the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play this weekend.
"What I do like about it is the way we've played the last few ball games," Lowe said.
Chris Long scored 20 points on 5-of-17 shooting for Elon (6-8), which shot 47 percent from 3-point range but was denied its first victory against an ACC team since 2005, falling to 0-4 against that league this season.
"We are an improved basketball team because of the schedule that we've played," Elon coach Matt Matheny said. "But we need to get better in games like this. With an opportunity to be a little bit more successful in the second half, the game could have turned out differently."
Smith, an All-ACC forward who missed 10 games with a knee injury, returned last week against San Diego and had 16 points off the bench in that one. This time, he helped key the Wolfpack's 11-3 surge to begin the second half in which they were intent on running the offense through some of their most experienced players.
Scott Wood knocked down a key 3-pointer. Javi Gonzalez banked in a pretty runner. Smith — held to a single shot in the first half by a steady stream of double-teams — started the run with a layup 14 seconds into the half, then hit two free throws to tie it for the first time since roughly 5 minutes in.
"It was definitely a key that we were going to ... get (Smith) some one-on-one matchups down on the block," Wood said.
Leslie put N.C. State up for the first time with a fast-break dunk that made it 46-44 with 17:50 left to play, and the Wolfpack held Elon to one field goal during roughly an 8-minute stretch after that while gradually extending their lead. They took their first double-figure lead on Smith's layup that made it 69-58 with 7½ minutes left, and Elon didn't get closer than eight after that.
"Coach Lowe, he wasn't happy about the first half — he came in, told us we weren't playing (any) defense," Smith said. "We had to pick our defense up or it was going to be an upset."
Wood added 11 of his 13 points after halftime and Richard Howell finished with 11 for N.C. State, which won just the third meeting between the instate schools since 1926-27.
Drew Spradlin scored 12 points and Jack Isenbarger added 10 for Elon, which shot well from both sets of lines — hitting its first 18 free throws and knocking down nine of its 19 attempts from 3-point range.
The Phoenix never trailed in the first half and twice built double-digit leads after hitting six early 3s. Three came during a 16-6 run that made it 26-16 with 11½ minutes before the break.
"In the first half, we played well enough in all facets of the game to be the winner," Matheny said.
Leslie had 11 points in the opening 20 minutes for N.C. State, which didn't receive a field goal from a non-freshman until Smith's jumper through contact with 6½ minutes left in the half.