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Gerry Broome, Associated Press
North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011. Syracuse won 88-72.

RALEIGH, N.C. — C.J. Williams is rapidly evolving from role player to key scorer for North Carolina State.

Williams finished with 25 points in the Wolfpack's 88-72 loss to No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday night, marking the second straight game in which the 6-foot-5 senior has set a career high in scoring. In fact, going back to a loss at Stanford, Williams has scored at least 18 points in three straight games.

Against the Orange's zone defense, Williams kept thriving by flashing to the high post underneath the guards in the Syracuse zone for mid-range shots. He also hit three 3-pointers.

The output is coming from a player who never averaged even five points in any of his first three seasons. Under first-year coach Mark Gottfried, Williams is averaging 13.3 points and shooting nearly 55 percent from the field.

"I've always felt I'm a good mid-range shooter," Williams said. "I just tried to find the gaps and get to the spots where I know I'm confident and shooting the ball. I was able to hit a couple of 3s early and then that kind of stretched out their defense a little bit, so I was able to find the gap in the middle.

"I just felt like I was in a rhythm. My teammates were finding me in the open spots, so I was able to knock down open shots."

For Syracuse, Dion Waiters scored a career-high 22 points while Kris Joseph added 21.

Scoop Jardine added 16 points for the Orange (11-0), including a pair of 3-pointers during an 11-2 spurt that finally gave them some cushion after the Wolfpack fought back from a 17-point deficit late in the first half. Waiters also came up big during that run, starting it by knocking down his own 3-pointer to answer one by Scott Wood that brought N.C. State (6-4) within 63-61.

Waiters also jumped a pass and raced in for a dunk, then Jardine closed the spurt with another 3 to push the lead to 74-63 with 6:41 left.

It was a good road test for Syracuse, which was playing for the first time as No. 1 this season — as well as its first game outside its home state.

"Not to say that we're arrogant, but we're No. 1 in the country for a reason," Joseph said. "Going into someone else's home, it's always going to be tough. Like I said, we held our composure — that's what I took out of this game."

The Orange trailed by eight early before Waiters scored 10 points during a game-turning 23-0 run that silenced a rowdy sellout crowd and helped Syracuse take a 47-33 halftime lead. But the Wolfpack charged out of halftime with a 13-1 run to get back in it and even twice tied the game to re-energize the home crowd — only to see Waiters and Jardine knock down huge shots to take back control.

N.C. State has frequently had nearby rivals Duke and North Carolina come into Raleigh with a No. 1 ranking. But this was the first time a nonconference No. 1 had come here since February 1979 and just the second time in program history, creating a far more lively environment than usual for a Christmas-time matchup.

"We knew they were going to come out throwing punches and we had to be ready to throw punches back," Waiters said. "With the No. 1 team coming inside here, we knew it was going to be a hostile environment but we had to stick together as a unit, play together and do everything we usually do in practice."

Syracuse shot 57 percent and hit 11 of 25 3-point tries. N.C. State was even better at 58 percent and made 7 of 14 3s, but the Wolfpack committed 19 turnovers that led to 25 points for Syracuse. In addition, Waiters' huge scoring day helped the Orange reserves outscore the Wolfpack reserves 46-4 for the game.

N.C. State fell to 5-26 against No. 1 teams, with its last win coming in 2004 against Duke.

"Once you lose a game, you sit up here and say, 'They've got a great team, yada, yada, yada,'" Gottfried said. "I've been around a lot of good teams, guy, and that team right there might be playing on Monday night in April. We did a lot of good things tonight. We just didn't do enough of them."