RALEIGH, N.C.—Coming into the 2012-13 college basketball season, preseason ACC favorite N.C. State had a motto for the year—“Our State”—in hopes of winning the ACC title over Triangle rivals Duke and North Carolina, who have maintained a firm grip on the conference crown for much of the past decade.

And on Saturday, it was the Wolfpack’s state. A deadly fastbreak attack paced by senior floor general Lorenzo Brown—who finished with 12 points and dished out all 13 of N.C. State’s assists in the game—combined with powerful inside forces Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie were too much for the shorthanded Blue Devils to overcome, as N.C. State earned the 84-76 victory.

“Their transition is what really won the game for them,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And [Howell] is just a beast.”

Playing its first true road game of the year in a sold-out PNC Arena without senior forward Ryan Kelly, No. 1 Duke (15-1, 2-1 in the ACC) looked as if it was in position to take No. 20 N.C. State (14-2, 3-0 in the ACC) to the wire based on its performance in the first half. The Blue Devils were able to lead by as many as eight in the first half, but ended up losing their advantage and went into the locker room down by two points at the half.

From the onset of the second half, N.C. State took control, beginning with an 8-2 run and owning the glass, forcing Duke to take difficult shots.

“We drew some energy off our fans, no question about it,” Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried said. “Our guys played really hard, they knew this was a big deal. Our ability to finish defensive possessions with rebounds in the second half helped us. The best offense we could run was getting on the boards and scoring.”

Kelly’s absence was costly. Howell—a bruising 6-foot-9, 257-pound senior center—punished Duke’s inexperienced bigs on the boards, grabbing 18 rebounds and scoring 16 points. His springy 6-foot-9 running mate in the frontcourt, Leslie, showed why he was voted the preseason ACC Player of the Year. The Raleigh native finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting and 7-for-8 at the charity stripe. Making those figures even more impressive, Leslie was guarded by 6-foot-11 senior Mason Plumlee—Duke’s best player and National Player of the Year hopeful—for much of the contest.

“C.J. was unbelievable,” Gottfried said. “I think in the second half he made his mind up and down the stretch offensively he was nearly unguardable. He showed a lot of resilience just to keep attacking the rim.”

The Plumlee-Leslie matchup was arguably the most intriguing of the afternoon. Plumlee was able to muster 15 points and 11 rebounds against perhaps the most formidable frontcourt he has faced this season.

The balance of Gottfried’s club gave Duke’s defense fits. Scott Wood, forward T.J. Warren and guard Rodney Purvis scored 14, 10 and seven points respectively.

Despite fighting admirably all game-long when N.C. State was often on the verge of pulling away in the second half, the Blue Devils could not catch the breaks it needed to keep its perfect record intact. Senior guard Seth Curry was clutch all day by hitting timely shots to keep Duke within arms reach of the Wolfpack for much of the day. The senior netted a team-high 22 points on 5-of-10 shooting from three-point range.

Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Curry slipped on the court and was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury in the closing minutes of the game.

“[Curry] played well,” sophomore point guard Quinn Cook said. “He’s the best shooter in the country. He made it rough for their defense to guard him.”

Coming off the bench against the squad he nearly picked over Duke last May, freshman forward Amile Jefferson—who played well with 10 points and four rebounds in just nine minutes of action—fouled out of the game at the 8:07 mark with the Blue Devils down just 62-57. As the best option to play alongside Plumlee in the post, the loss of Jefferson further doomed Duke.

From that point on, Leslie and Howell continued to overwhelm Duke in the paint as the game wore on, while the Wolfpack’s athletic fast break was able to finish when it needed to, allowing them to build a double-digit lead 67-57 with 7:07 left to play. To seal the victory, N.C. State held off the Blue Devils by converting from the free throw line as the game drew to an end.

“[N.C. State is] a great team,” said Cook, who finished with 17 points and seven assists. “They are very athletic. Purvis and Brown in transition are very tough to stop… They got going in the second half.”

With Kelly out of commission, the Blue Devils have struggled considerably. The team is just 4-5 when he is out of the lineup, dating back to last season.

Junior forward Josh Hairston, who celebrated his 21st birthday Saturday with his first start of the season in place of Kelly, finished with eight points and five rebounds.

“Amile and Josh played well,” Krzyzewski said. “We got 18 and nine from them. They just don’t know the defense and execution of the offense as well as Ryan [Kelly]. We’re not a great team with Ryan, we’re a really good team, but we’re better than our parts when we have them all together.”