The Tar Heels probably wouldn't have shown that toughness a month ago. Now they're playing with a confidence that keeps rising right along with their position in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
Reggie Bullock had 22 points and a career-high 13 rebounds to help UNC beat rival N.C. State 76-65 on Saturday to avenge last month's loss.
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige added 14 points and eight assists for the Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC), who continued their strong play since coach Roy Williams went to a four-guard lineup and shortened his rotation. Now the Tar Heels have put themselves back in the chase for a first-round bye at next month's ACC tournament in Greensboro with three straight wins, which looked unlikely after a 26-point loss at Miami two weeks ago.
"Any win builds confidence," sophomore guard P.J. Hairston said. "We feel if we keep playing with this intensity, we'll be a hard team to beat going into the ACC tournament."
N.C. State (19-8, 8-6) won last month's meeting 91-83, leading by 28 points in the second half on the way to snapping a 13-game skid in the series that dated to 2007. It was only the Wolfpack's second win against the Tar Heels since Williams returned to his alma mater before the 2003-04 season.
This time, North Carolina blew a 10-point lead early in the second half before going back ahead for good with an 18-2 run while holding the Wolfpack to a single basket during a nearly 5-minute stretch.
N.C. State appeared to have a big advantage inside with preseason ACC player of the year C.J. Leslie and the league's most relentless rebounder in Richard Howell. Yet the Tar Heels scored 24 points off 17 turnovers to offset the Wolfpack's domination on the boards.
Williams has said all year he thought his team would improve as the season wore on. It's just not happening the way anyone envisioned, especially after ugly losses at Indiana and Texas.
"From Miami and Texas and Indiana, yeah, it definitely is like a different team," Williams said. "We're still growing. I'm pleased with some of the things we're accomplishing right now. I'm not pleased with where we are because I want us to be even better. But there's no question it's a much different team than we played earlier."
It was also a huge turnaround for Paige from a miserable showing in Raleigh. Paige scored seven on 2-for-11 shooting last time, but held his own against preseason all-ACC point guard Lorenzo Brown (12 points, 12 assists) and had no turnovers in 31 minutes.
"That was the first time I played against a really big-time player," Paige said. "He got the best of me big-time in that matchup. I just wanted to come out and try to contain him as best I can and just be aggressive. I couldn't let him have a big night like he did last time because he makes their whole offense go."
Scott Wood scored 19 points to lead N.C. State, which was trying for its first regular-season sweep of the Tar Heels in a decade.
Richard Howell added 13 points and 17 rebounds for the Wolfpack, who finished with a 43-34 rebounding advantage. But the Tar Heels stayed close on the offensive boards and even took a 15-7 edge in second-chance points.
Leslie was a no-show with six points, four rebounds and six turnovers in 30 minutes.
"I love him as much as anybody. But when you're a good player, then you've got to play better," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "Richard gets 17 rebounds today. Are we expecting Richard to get 30 rebounds? Holy mackerel. Somebody else has to go rebound the ball. Calvin has to step up — period."
Williams briefly yanked his regulars as the Wolfpack went ahead by four in the second half. Once they returned, North Carolina outscored N.C. State 25-8 over the next 8 minutes, including the 18-2 spurt that sent the Smith Center into a roar.
Bullock hit two 3-pointers during the big run while Paige hit one of his own and blew by Wood for a layup and a three-point play. When Paige hit two free throws with 3:37 left, UNC had turned a 55-52 deficit into a 70-57 lead.
"We felt like we had control of the game and felt like we had it bottled up," Howell said. "I think that's what kicked us in the (behind). We thought the game was over."