North Carolina (13-7, 2-3 ACC) capitalized on a pair of first-half spurts (7-0 and 9-0) to build an early 23-14 lead, but Tracy Smith (20 points, six rebounds) and Javier Gonzalez (19 points) kept the Wolfpack close, cutting the deficit to 37-33 at halftime.
N.C. State (13-8, 2-5 ACC) charged out of the locker room to take a 43-38 lead, but the Tar Heels regained control and never looked back, eventually boasting a 66-49 advantage with less than four minutes to play.
UNC shot 57.7 percent (15-of-26) in the second half, compared to the Wolfpack’s 29.0 percent (9-of-31). For the game, Carolina connected on 50.9 percent (29-of-57) of its field goal attempts, while N.C. State managed just 39.0 percent (23-of-59). The Tar Heels also won the rebounding battle, 39-30.
Deon Thompson led North Carolina with 20 points, while Larry Drew tied his career-high with 18 points to go along with seven assists and just one turnover. Ed Davis posted 12 points and nine rebounds in his first game back after suffering a left ankle sprain, and Dexter Strickland tossed in 14 points of his own. Will Graves also added six points and nine rebounds.
INSIDE THE GAME
Run Talk, UNC Style
It’s true that basketball is a game of runs, but far too often this season the Tar Heels have been on the wrong end of the conversation. We’ve donated plenty of electronic ink in documenting North Carolina’s troubles in that regard this season, and for a few minutes on Tuesday night, it looked as though N.C. State’s 18-4 run that straddled halftime would add another chapter of misery for UNC.
Guard Javier Gonzalez scored 15 of the Pack’s 18 points during that spurt, igniting the crowd as he single-handedly turned a 34-25 deficit into a 43-38 lead.
The Tar Heels have often displayed a glass jaw on the road when it comes to absorbing uppercuts like the one N.C. State threw midway through this ball game, but something different occurred at the RBC Center. Instead of falling back into panic mode, North Carolina remained focused on the task at hand.
“When you get hit, you’ve got to hit somebody back,” Drew said. “You’re not going to curl up into a ball and lay down – at least I hope not. We didn’t do that. We have a lot of heart on this team and we showed it tonight.”
The Tar Heels responded with a 28-6 run that turned a five-point deficit into a 66-49 working margin with 3:57 left on the game clock. A heightened intensity level on the defensive end shut down the Wolfpack, holding them without a field goal for eight minutes and 14 seconds. N.C. State missed 12 straight shots during that stretch and 17 of 18 field goal attempts during the full UNC run.
“We were fortunate,” head coach Roy Williams said. “We got some misses from them; they had some open shots that they missed. We kept scoring down the stretch and that’s something that we haven’t been doing lately.”
Davis may have put it best, saying, “Basketball is a game of runs, and we made ours.”
Addressing the Scoring Issues
North Carolina entered the N.C. State game having only connected on 39.4 percent of its field goal attempts (75-of-190) in the previous three games. There was reason for hope, however, as the Wolfpack have consistently fielded bad defenses under Sidney Lowe, and this season had been no different – N.C. State ranked 11th in conference play in field goal percentage defense (45.2).
But through the first 25 minutes of Tuesday’s rivalry clash, the Tar Heels only converted 35.8 percent (14-of-39) of their field goal attempts.
“Guys, everybody understands that it looks so much better when the ball goes in,” Williams said.
It sure does. And things looked near perfect during the final 15 minutes of action as North Carolina connected on 15 of its final 18 field goal attempts. Of course, it helps when your opponent is struggling to score on the other end, providing opportunities for the Tar Heels to get out in transition and score 10 points on the break.
Even so, there was some discussion in the media room that Williams was intentionally slowing his up-tempo offense down to run set plays that focused on his post threats. But the seventh-year head coach corrected that theory ever so slightly in his postgame press conference.
“The intention was not to throttle it back; the intention was to get a great shot every time,” Williams said. “And if we didn’t have it on the break, then let’s do a better job with our movement, let’s do a better job with our screens and a better job with our spacing.”
After playing seven games without a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, North Carolina has now delivered two straight – Wake Forest (17-9) and N.C. State (11-10).
Tar Heel fans have anxiously waited for this highly-touted freshman class to rise up and deliver in the clutch, and on Tuesday, the rookies did just that.
Trailing 43-38, Dexter Strickland subbed in for Marcus Ginyard and promptly found Drew for a crucial 3-pointer. The Elizabeth, N.J. native would score the go-ahead basket less than two minutes later, but not before two John Henson blocks reenergized the bench in setting the tone for the 28-6 rally.
“When I got in the game, I told everybody, ‘Come on, we’ve got to do this, we can’t lose again,’” Strickland said.
Henson only played seven minutes, but displayed the vast potential that earned him a top-five national recruiting ranking coming out of high school in blocking three shots, grabbing two rebounds and scoring on a long-armed lay-up that resembled an old Gumby cartoon. For a young man that has struggled to find his bearings on the collegiate level, Tuesday’s performance had him grinning from ear to ear during his postgame interview.
“It feels good,” Henson said. “The biggest thing Coach has been telling me is to have a contribution and that’s what I think I did tonight. You’ve just got to contribute any way that you can.”
Strickland and Henson’s play was far from perfect against N.C. State, but their production suggests that turning the proverbial rookie corner may not take as long as some were forecasting just last week.
“The whole season is a journey,” Williams said. “Each and every day you’ve got opportunities to learn something and each and every day you’ve got opportunities to do successful things or fail. You’ve got to hopefully do the right things, and if you do, you can benefit with positive results and that really does help you.”