by Neil Morris
Still, there was theater of the absurd in not only the shamelessness of the spectacle, but also seeing Yow, Corchiani and Rodney Monroe hoist some oversized silver chalice over their heads as commendation for a team that 23 years ago finished 22-9 and was eliminated in the Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
Nevertheless, the Pack and a capacity crowd of ravenous supporters were ready to ride a wave of angst and revenge for a 29-point drubbing a month ago in Chapel Hill to an improbable and important victory over their hated—yes—rivals.
However, the Tar Heels didn’t get the memo. Or rather, somebody forgot that these Tar Heels don’t particularly like the Wolfpack, either.
If someone had told State fans before last night’s game that the Wolfpack would commit only four team turnovers, outscore North Carolina in the paint 42-22, outscore UNC 16-8 off second-chance points, finish even with 40 rebounds each and outscore the Tar Heels’ bench 12-5, they’d have already started igniting bonfires. Instead, the Wolfpack never led for a single second on their way to an 86-74 loss.
In fact, the Tar Heels played one their most complete games of the season against a team they already matchup well against. Every UNC starter scored in double-figures, led by the indomitable Kendall Marshall, who had perhaps the best game of his college career. Given space to shoot by a N.C. State defense that chose to concentrate on collapsing around the Tar Heels’ big men, Marshall scored a career-best 22 points—including shooting 4-5 three-pointers, also a career-high—dished out 13 assists and committed no turnovers. According to the ESPN Stats and Information Group, it’s the first time in 16 years that a Division 1 player had that sort of stat line. And, it’s only the fifth 20-point, 13-assist game in UNC history.
After the game, Marshall gave a “shout-out” to the Raleigh News and Observer for an article earlier in the day that offhandedly branded Marshall as “one-dimensional.”
“I’ve felt like I’ve worked on my shot enough to where it would pay dividends in a game,” said Marshall. “It just hasn’t happened yet this year. I’m just happy I was able to help my team, opening up for the bigs and knock down some shots.”
Harrison Barnes flashed moments of dead-eyed alacrity on his way to 20 points, his twelfth 20-point performance this season and his fourth in his last five games. And John Henson contributed the quietest 14-point, 13-rebound effort you’ll ever see, his league-leading 14th double-double this season.
Paced by early jumpers from Marshall and Barnes and a couple of layups by Henson, Carolina jumped out to an early 14-point lead and looked on their way to replicating the Chapel Hill rout. However, the Wolfpack clawed their way back thanks to the one-two punch of C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, along with five first-half bench points from Alex Johnson. A Leslie layup with 7:23 left in the first half tied the score at 30, sending the RBC Center into pandemonium.
However, another Barnes jumper 30 seconds later put the Tar Heels ahead to stay, although they only took a five-point lead into halftime. The advantage would push to double-digits shortly after intermission and not drop below that mark over the final 10 minutes of the game.
For N.C. State, Leslie was nearly unstoppable at times and led all scorers with 24 points and a team-high 12 rebounds. However, he was again plagued by foul trouble that limited him to only 29 minutes—by comparison, every UNC starter plus teammates Brown and Scott Wood played more than 30 minutes each. Brown added 18 points and four assists, a durable performance overshadowed by Marshall’s superlatives. But, Brown also took an excessive 21 shot attempts (making only six), 16 more Wood and far too many for an offense that was at its best the few times in the first half it ran pick-and-rolls and backdoor cuts. As a team, the Wolfpack only made 3-of-13 behind arc.
Beyond North Carolina’s exploits—most notably shooting 10-of-19 from three-point range—State’s weakest links this night were foul trouble (again) and Wood’s continued shooting woes. After Howell picked up his third foul with 17:33 remaining and State down eight, Gottfried rolled the dice and left the big man in the game. The gamble failed just over a minute later when Howell committed his fourth and had to leave the game.
Meanwhile, Wood went 1-of-5, making him now 6-of-32 over his last four games. State head coach Mark Gottfried expressed concern the past several days about limiting Wood’s minute in hopes of preserving his legs. Still, Wood played 35 minutes against UNC and appeared to have limited lift on his jump shots.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams identified stopping Wood as a key for the Tar Heels, a concerted strategy Barnes echoed.
“We definitely tried to … put a lot of pressure on Scott Wood, knowing he was going to be running off screens all night trying to get open looks,” said Barnes. “Making him work on the defensive end kind of takes his legs away.”
For the Wolfpack, the euphoria of the night now gives way to the stark reality that their flicking NCAA tournament hopes are fading, Gottfried’s protestations notwithstanding. N.C. State now has 10 losses and, more ominously, are 0-7 this season against Top 25 competition. In order to harbor any realistic hopes of hoofing at the Big Dance, they must win their last three regular games—at Clemson this Saturday, home against Miami next Wednesday and at Virginia Tech on March 4—plus defeat some opponent (probably ranked) in the ACC Tournament.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels temporarily sit atop the league standings, with their co-leader to be determined Thursday night when Duke travels to Florida State. Carolina goes to Charlottesville this weekend to face Virginia, always a tough venue for the Tar Heels.
For now, however, North Carolina and N.C. State close the latest chapter in their history. Depending on new league scheduling, the teams might not play in Raleigh for two years. It’s a pity, really, since the heated rivalry clearly brings out the best in each team.
“It’s different from Duke,” Barnes observed. “It’s a hate. It’s a distaste. [Here] they don’t want to see us. They loathe the color blue. They just want to see all misfortune happen to us when we walk in here.”
“State College is a fun place to play,” quipped Henson. “They’ve got the rowdiest students with their signs and all that. You always get hyped up to play here.”
On his way off the court following this win, Henson gave the Wolfpack student section a parting salute.
“I had to wave bye to them, give them a ‘See you next year’ wave,” he explained. “They waved back with a few fingers and profanities, but it’s part of the fun of playing here.”
“We just kind of embraced that enemy look,” Barnes told reporters, “and just had to go out there and put down the wolves."