“It is difficult to play without Rashad,” Roy Williams said. “He’s not only our leading scorer, he’s such a threat that everybody else has to stay on him.”
But relief was on the way in the form of a somewhat forgotten colleague.
Starting for just the second time this season, senior Melvin Scott filled in admirably for McCants, nailing four three-pointers for 12 points. The one-time regular starter seemed much more comfortable with the added minutes, and was able to square up and get his shot off easier than he has shown all season.
“My mom always told me, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do,’” Scott said. “This year, I've been very patient.”
Raymond Felton enjoyed arguably the best game of his career, with a season-high 21 points and a season-low zero turnovers, to go with seven assists. Felton, who had eight miscues in the loss at Duke on Feb. 9, has committed just seven turnovers since.
“I didn’t get upset about it; I just told myself I was never going to let it happen again,” Felton said regarding his struggles at Duke.
And in what is becoming commonplace, Sean May recorded his fifth consecutive double-double – his seventh in the last 12 games – with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“I expect triple-triples [from May], but you don’t usually get that,” Roy Williams said. “He has played very well down the stretch for us. He’s got such great hands rebounding the basketball.”
Jawad Williams added 15 points, including three from beyond the arc; while Marvin Williams, who was 10-of-12 from the free throw line, scored 14.
“I talked about that we didn’t have Rashad so everybody has got to pick up a little bit of the load for him,” Roy Williams said.
With the victory, the Tar Heels (23-3, 11-2 ACC) remain atop the league standings and control destiny in quest for their first outright regular season title in 12 years. UNC tied for first in the ACC after the 1994-95 and 2000-01 seasons.
Meanwhile the Wolfpack (15-11, 5-8), and its beleaguered head coach Herb Sendek, can only watch as State’s NCAA Tournament hopes appear to be slipping away.
A layup by Jordan Collins gave the Pack its biggest lead of the night at 24-18 with 8:29 to play in the first half. But moments later, a three from Reyshawn Terry would put the Heels up for good.
After a Jawad Williams’ three stretched Carolina’s lead to five with 1:08 left in the first half, Sendek opted not to trade two possessions for one. Julius Hodge, who led State in scoring with 20 points -- on 7-of-16 shooting – did convert a three, but UNC got the last shot off – a trifecta from the corner by Scott.
“He was really big,” Sendek said of Scott’s field goal. “Right before the half we had a pretty good, aggressive rotation and he just nailed it.”
UNC went to the locker room up 38-33, but Scott didn’t cool down. Just nine seconds into the second half, he hit another three to extend the Tar Heels’ lead.
But behind seven straight points from freshman Andrew Brackman, who played just seven minutes for some reason (he wasn’t injured), State rallied to cut its deficit to 53-50 at the 10:38 mark.
However with 19,722 mostly Wolfpack fans now in a tizzy, Felton calmly sank a three. Then, after a turnover by Brackman, May got open for slam to quickly extend the Heels’ lead back to eight.
After an errant three-ball attempt by Ilian Evtimov gave it back to UNC, Jawad Williams missed one from long range, but he managed to get the ball back after a May rebound and then drained his next attempt.
Carolina was up 61-50 at that point and State would never seriously threaten the Tar Heels again.
UNC grabbed 10 more rebounds than State on the night, with a 12-7 advantage on the offensive boards.
“That was huge,” Sendek said. “We could ill afford to give them those types of opportunities. They're challenging enough to stop the first time. You give them two cracks at it, and you’ve really put yourself in a tough position.”
The Tar Heels travel to Maryland Sunday for their final ACC road game of the season, before putting a 16-game home winning streak on the line against Florida State and Duke the following week.
So just how good is this year’s UNC team?
“I think that we are one of those teams that has a chance to make it to St. Louis and to win, but there are probably about 20-24 of those,” Roy Williams said.