Danny Green said, “They wanted it more. We didn't come out with energy, intensity, we weren't focused, and we didn't play together as a team like we should have.”
When Roy Williams said NC State was 34 points better than his squad based on the two teams relative visits to Virginia Tech, almost everyone shrugged it off as classic poor-mouthing pre-game “coachspeak.”
No one really believed the Wolfpack had what it took to upset two of the ACC’s top teams in back-to-back games.
No one except State coach Sidney Lowe, who as a player led the 1983 State team to a national championship after it was written off at mid-season; and, his team.
“It was an unbelievable effort from our team on both ends,” Lowe said. “We knew that if we could execute and get the shots we needed, we would have a good percentage.”
Perhaps North Carolina should have seen this coming. After all, everyone knows State is a different team with senior point guard Engin Atsur healthy. After all, the Wolfpack earned its no-fluke win over the Hokies three days earlier. And the fans that filled the RBC Center to capacity also believed – at least for a day – that the Pack was back.
“I have no answers,” Williams said. “They had more passion for the game than we did, and I don’t understand that. I never will understand that. They dominated us.”
UNC (20-3, 6-2 ACC) pranced into enemy territory brandishing a five-game winning streak since its loss in Blacksburg, Va., having blasted its last three opponents by a combined total of 95 points.
And even more intimidating was Carolina’s six-game winning streak in the series, including having won eight of the last 10.
But as is often the case, trends and preconceptions take a backseat in a rabid territorial rivalry game such as this.
Courtney Fells’ 21 points led five Wolfpack players in double figures, including Ben McCauley, who answered the Hansbrough challenge by going 6-for-6 from the field and 5-for-7 from the line to finish with 17.
Brandon Costner registered a team-high 11 rebounds to go with his 12 points.
Atsur shook off early foul trouble and also manufactured a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists.
Gavin Grant scored 16, including a coast-to-coast drive and layup which provided the Pack with a surprising 38-36 halftime lead.
The Wolfpack (13-8, 3-5) had used a 12-0 run, sparked by four first half threes by Fells, to take a 29-20 lead. But Carolina rallied with a 16-7 run to tie the game just before Grant’s demoralizing basket at the halftime buzzer.
“We talk constantly about never allowing anyone to catch a length-of-the-court pass for a layup, and yet they did,” Williams said. “I can’t explain it.”
The Tar Heels may have found some locker room solace in the their late-half surge, but they couldn’t have imagined what was in store for the final 20 minutes.
At one point, State had converted 12-of-14 field goals in the second half needing to score on nearly every possession to fend off UNC’s ever present offensive threat.
“We’re too fat and happy, and expected to win just by walking out there,” Williams said. “We thought we could win just by showing up, and you can’t do that. Every team in this league is good.”
Despite the Wolfpack’s bonanza of shooting accuracy down the stretch, Carolina scratched and clawed to within 77-75 with 1:46 left behind a pair of free throws by Wayne Ellington. But crucial fouls committed by Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller which resulted in four Pack free throws put a monkey wrench in the Tar Heels’ comeback plans.
At times, Ty Lawson kept the Tar Heels in the game with drives to the basket and a pair of threes that resulted in a 21-point performance. Meanwhile he dished out seven assists while committing just one turnover – the latter an after-basket inbounds pass that was mishandled by Terry.
Missing was production by Terry, who Williams said wasn’t feeling well. He finished with just one field goal and one assist in 15 minutes of playing time shortened by foul trouble.
Along with the crowd, Hansbrough battled double and triple-teams, and at one-time even a quadruple-team, on his way to a 9-of-16 shooting night from the field and a 6-of-6 effort at the free throw line.
He was whistled for a technical with 7:01 remaining with State up by eight. Williams admitted upon watching the replay that the official’s call appeared warranted, but said he thought Hansbrough was just swiping at the ball and went on to defend the sophomore standout’s character.
Carolina rounds out the first half of the conference slate Wednesday at 9 p.m. at No. 9/10 Duke (18-4, 5-3), which hosts Florida State on Sunday.
“We put it behind us like right now – get ready for Duke,” Lawson said. “We go to practice and get ready for Duke.”