Don’t be fooled by the final score; this one was not a squeaker.
Yet when Wolfpack guard Engin Atsur nailed a 3-pointer to trim a one-time 10-point Carolina second-half lead to just two with 1:07 remaining, it seemed there might be enough State magic to escape with a fifth-straight win over the Tar Heels.
But again, and on their next possession, the Tar Heels got a huge late-game lift from Rashad McCants.
“As far as that last shot, I’m always wanting the ball in the clutch,” said McCants, who finished with 13 points on 3-of-7 shooting.
Just one outing after taking over the ACC scoring lead from State’s Julius Hodge on Saturday, McCants came up with a big post-up move in isolation to put the game out of reach at 67-63.
“I really was wanting [McCants] to drive people more tonight,” said UNC coach Roy Williams. “But at the end he took the ball to the basket and made the play.”
Marcus Melvin led the Wolfpack with 15 points, while Hodge chipped in 12.
Raymond Felton scored a team-high 14 points, dished five assists and stole the ball three times to lead the Tar Heels. Sean May continued to struggle shooting the ball, but the ACC’s second leading rebounder was a force on the boards with 10 rebounds.
“It’s a big win just to beat N.C. State,” Felton said. “To show our toughness on defense was great. We showed a lot of poise and I think we are finally starting to get the picture.”
Thanks to a solid defensive effort, Carolina improved to 13-4 overall and evened its ACC league mark to 3-3. For the sixth time in its last seven games and eighth out of its last 10, the UNC defense forced its opponents into 20 or more turnovers.
“When we fell behind double-digits in the second half, our guys really battled,” NCSU coach Herb Sendek said. “Twenty turnovers is a lot for our team. You just have to do a good job on transition with them. Felton does such a good job with the basketball. Before you know it, he’s up on you with the basketball.”
N.C. State fell to 11-5 and 4-2 in the ACC.
One of UNC’s most glaring weaknesses had been its inability to keep up a torrid pace for 40 minutes. Carolina arguably has the best starting five in the country, but one that had worn down at times when it counted most.
However the Wolfpack’s style of play ensured the Tar Heels would still have plenty of gas in the tank to extend its defense down the stretch.
While it was supposed to be State that would triumph by sticking to its guns and remaining patient – even while saddled with a deficit – instead it was the Tar Heels that waited sufficiently, eventually exacting their will by forcing turnovers and executing their break.
“The key to the game was that we were so much more intense with our defense in the second half,” Williams said.
“They played a really good defense – a packed in zone, match up – they did a real good job in terms of containing us as far as three point shooting and driving,” McCants added. “We had to find other ways to score, so we played defense and got out on the break.”
As Carolina pulled away, State found itself facing the reality that its time among the league elite in the standings might end soon. The Wolfpack would also have to come to grips with the fact that its two-year, four-game reign over the Tar Heels was over. While UNC moved a step closer to shaking off their slow start in the ACC and moving back into the thick of the conference race.
“It was attitude and effort,” David Noel said. “We had to pick up our effort and change our attitude about how we were going to play defense, and that is what we did.”
There was no mystery in what the Wolfpack wanted to do. From State’s standpoint, it was a matter of running its Pete Carril-designed offense against the Tar Heels’ inconsistent defense. For UNC, it was a matter of administering its “haymaking run” that would be too much for their visiting rivals to overcome; and more importantly, force State to abandon its game plan.
The Tar Heels did jump out to an 11-5 advantage to start the game, but the rest of the way the flow of the game was just what State wanted.
The Wolfpack led 38-34 at halftime as the Tar Heels appeared ready to fulfill the prophecy that had enabled State to take temporary hold of second place in the ACC.
But when you accept that a gimmick strategy is the only way to have a chance to win, then you limit your options if it doesn’t work. State did more than just hang around for most of the game, until the Tar Heels began to take advantage of its across-the-board talent level.
“We didn’t let it get away; we battled like hell,” Sendek said. “We put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win. We needed to make some more plays to win the game. They did a good job. They have a lot of quickness. They really get out and extend passing lanes.”
Shortly after the start of the second half, Carolina needed a wake up call and got it – albeit at a physical cost to one of its team leaders.
Just when you thought Jawad Williams couldn’t possibly take another blow to his “glass” nose, he was again the victim of incidental contact with 17:03 remaining in the game. Williams struck a familiar pose on all fours as blood dripped from his face.
From that point on the Tar Heels and their fans were electrified.
Just a little taste of Carolina blood on the floor was enough to wake up a stagnant Tar Heel offense that went on to outscore the Wolfpack 16-5 over the next 8:44.
For the second time in as many games, the Tar Heels' best performance came after intermission.