It was the battle to avoid last place: When the N.C. State Wolfpack visited the Dean E. Smith Center late Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill, the circumstances were much different than they were last February, when UNC had only three season losses and was charging convincingly toward the school’s fifth national title. But the Tar Heels’ woes have been largely on par with those of the Wolfpack this season. Both teams came into today’s game with 11 losses each—eight for the Wolfpack in conference play and seven for the Tar Heels. And both teams dropped ACC contests at home Wednesday night, putting them neck and neck—or perhaps it’s feet and feet—for last place in the ACC.
Today, though, somebody had to win, and during a weekend in which alumni from the last seven decades of UNC’s century of men’s basketball gathered to celebrate tradition in Chapel Hill, it was the Tar Heels. With about five minutes left in the first half, the Tar Heels took the lead for the fifth time and, this time, didn’t relinquish it.
“What I felt is that it’s a wonderful weekend, and I told the kids, ‘Let’s do our part,’” UNC coach Roy Williams said of the festivities after the victory. Williams improved to 19-1 versus the Wolfpack. “I didn’t feel like it would be a great weekend if we didn’t do our part. I did emphasize that for this to be a really fantastic weekend, we had to play.”
And play was fast-paced and error-prone through the first half, with a load of loose balls and blocks and both teams pushing fouls into the bonus. N.C. State’s offense looked aggressive for those 20 minutes, shooting nine three-pointers (four more than the Tar Heels) and 30 field goals (two more than the Tar Heels). Tracy Smith’s consistency in the paint continued, with his characteristically patient push to the basket and steady hand from the charity stripe giving the Wolfpack more than a third of its 31 points in the opening half. But UNC shot better than it has in any half since their first meeting with the Wolfpack this season, shooting 46.4 percent from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the arc. One of UNC’s two first-half threes came from Larry Drew II off of a pass from David Wear. The shot tied the game after the Tar Heels had trailed by as many as five. The teams exchanged the lead several times over the next six minutes, and UNC emerged from the mess, pushing the advantage to as many as nine points before the break.
N.C. State got close, though. On a Richard Howell steal and a Tracy Smith outlet pass, Javier Gonzalez nailed a three with 23 seconds left in the half, cutting the Tar Heel lead to two and recalling this year’s previous N.C. State and UNC matchup. In January, Gonzalez exploded with eight points and a steal in the closing 100 seconds of the first half. When the Wolfpack returned from the locker room in Raleigh, they launched a 10-1 run that gave them a five-point lead over the visiting Heels. The Pack had no such luck in Chapel Hill. Will Graves scored on UNC’s second possession, increasing his team’s lead to four. N.C. State, on the other hand, had as many fouls as field goals in those five minutes, scoring only seven points to UNC’s 11.
“We came out in the second half and made a couple of bad passes, turned it over twice, made a couple of bad shots,” said N.C. State head coach Sidney Lowe. “It was that part of the second half we talk about. The first five minutes of the second half is when a lot of good teams really come out with intensity and try to make a run. We didn’t come out and do that.”
The Wolfpack continued to hang around, however, but their biggest and most consistent weapon, Smith, was largely immobilized by aggressive UNC defense inside. They only added two more threes on nine attempts, too, with the potent but unpredictable freshman Scott Wood missing four in the last 20 minutes.
Smith’s underwhelming second half—or, more properly, the Wolfpack’s inability to deliver the ball to one of the league's best scorers—should be especially troublesome for the Wolfpack since they were playing against a depleted Tar Heel frontcourt. Ed Davis broke his left wrist Wednesday night against Duke, and both Tyler Zeller and Travis Wear remained on the sideline today with injuries. Freshman John Henson, who has averaged just 3.6 points per game in 11.3 minutes, started for the first time. He scored nine points and ended the day with three blocks and three assists. That’s not bad, but the situation with his larger players certainly worried Williams Saturday after the game.
“We played Will [Graves] at the four spot quite a bit today, and at one point we had John [Henson] and Will as our four-five,” he said. “That’s two guys that have spent 25 percent of the year in those spots. It wasn’t very pleasant, to say the least.”
But a win is a win, at least, and especially in front of so many legends, it’s one that means a lot to the Tar Heels as they head to Georgia Tech Tuesday.