Even so, UNC built a commanding 40-23 lead at halftime before stretching the margin to 22 points early in the second half and coasting to an 11th-straight win over the Wolfpack in the Smith Center.
As bad as UNC may have been at times, N.C. State was often worse. Despite the varying troubles, the Tar Heels maintained their sense of urgency – a category that Roy Williams attributed to UNC's current winning streak on Friday – and worked together to keep the Wolfpack at a safe distance.
At one point in the first half, UNC head coach Roy Williams leaned over to his coaching staff and quipped, "the only people shooting the ball worse than we are is [N.C. State]."
UNC shot 42.4 percent in the opening half, but managed a 27-25 rebounding edge despite the Wolfpack missing 30 field goal attempts (10-of-40). The Tar Heels forced N.C. State to work through its halfcourt set, and with J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo blanketing ACC leading scorer T.J. Warren, the boys in red struggled to find any offensive rhythm early.
"We really did a nice job defensively and we got lucky because they missed some shots, too, but I thought we were really active," Williams said. "In the second half, we weren't as active and I didn't think we had that sense of urgency and then we just made silly plays."
N.C. State took advantage of some defensive lapses to pull within 55-42 with 11:56 to play, but the Tar Heels promptly responded with field goals on their next six possessions to push the margin back to 68-46. The Wolfpack kept coming, however, utilizing a 9-0 run to creep within 12 with 4:25 to play and then within 10 with 1:30 to play.
Despite a significant differential in field goal percentage after halftime – N.C. State shot 65.4 percent to UNC's 38.9 – the Tar Heels earned 10 more attempts with a 14-2 offensive rebounding edge and capitalized with a 13-4 second-chance points advantage.
UNC also shot 88.2 percent from the free throw line (15-of-17) in the second half (75.8 percent for the game) to slow N.C. State's rally attempts.
While Marcus Paige (15 pts) and McAdoo (16 points, 13 rebounds) served in their normal roles as go-to scorers, they received plenty of help. Brice Johnson added 10 points and seven rebounds while Kennedy Meeks scored eight points and grabbed 10 boards. Leslie McDonald posted a team-high 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting and Tokoto's defensive help prevented Warren from keeping his team in the game in the first half.
That depth of production is critical in surviving games that don't equate to A-grade performances.
"Guys step up on different nights," Paige said. "The last couple of games it was Kennedy and we got a great contribution from Leslie tonight; he was able to knock down shots. Having a second, third or fourth guy step up behind myself and James Michael is going to help us offensively. That helps us not to have to put too much pressure on the same people."
UNC has played this way before this season and lost handily, which suggests a significant change in the team's play.
"We're getting better," sophomore forward Brice Johnson said. "Coach said he's had teams that could play bad and still win. We weren't that team, but I guess we did it today."
The Tar Heels have leveled their conference record at 4-4 after a 0-3 start and will likely be favored on Tuesday against Maryland.
When asked if Saturday's play marked a return to the effort that upset Louisville and Michigan State earlier in the season, Paige smiled and said, "I hope so."
"I hope this team sticks around a little bit," he continued. "We're having some success and we're having more fun. We're working harder in practice. Everything is starting to click for us and hopefully we can keep that going because it's a lot more fun to play like this than to be on the losing end."