It wasn’t easy for Tennessee State.
Saturday’s game in Reynolds Coliseum was the first played by the NC State men since the renovation of the historic arena. Wolfpack nation was in full force, loud and proud in what was dubbed a heritage game.
On the visitor’s side, a veteran point guard wearing a white headband embraced the electricity of the moment.
Tahjere McCall and Tennessee State looked to add their own piece to the Wolfpack heritage: play spoiler and get the program’s first win against an ACC opponent.
Despite coming up short in overtime, the Tigers showed they belonged.
Behind its defense, led by reigning OVC defensive POY McCall, Tennessee State had NC State on the ropes in the first ever meeting between the teams.
McCall began his career at Niagara and transferred to Tennessee State after his sophomore year. After sitting out a year, the point guard has become Tigers’ catalyst.
This was on display against NC State. In one sequence, McCall gave his team momentum on a no-look pass that led to a monster dunk by Christian Mekowulu shortly before halftime. While his impact won’t always show up in the box score, his toughness resembles his hometown of Philadelphia.
He brings focus, energy and passion that fuels the Tigers. His coach talked about his impact after the game.
“He’s really helped change our program, he’s such a winner, he’s very competitive, he plays extremely hard, has a very high basketball I.Q., awesome kid, great student,” Dana Ford said.
Not only does he do all the little things on the floor, his true leadership is shown in timeouts, in between free throws and on the bench. He’s an effective communicator.
Early in the game a heated exchange between both teams led to technical fouls called on a player from each team. The following timeout, McCall spoke with a ref, calmly came over to the bench and had words with a teammate to settle the situation.
McCall and Tennessee State have nothing to hang their heads over even though overtime didn’t go their way. With McCall at the helm, the Tigers are going to be a tough team come conference play.
Mark Gottfried had high praise.
“I have a hard time seeing anybody in that league playing with that team, that’s a good basketball team,” the NC State coach said after the game.
One reason is clearly McCall.
“He’s just a coach’s dream. We wouldn’t be where we are today had it not been for him,” Ford said. “Things kind of start and kind of end with him.”
McCall and the Tigers play Alabama State Dec. 14, before playing in another historic gym - Cameron Indoor - against Duke on Dec. 19.