This game isn’t a must-win for State. It's beyond that, in the sense that the Pack needs to show they can play with Carolina, beat them on a good night on their home floor or else die trying if the Heels play lights out ball. As the great sportswriter said, it's not whether you win or lose that counts, it's whether you can play your best against the best competition and perform under pressure.
To say this season hasn’t gone the way the fans wanted or Sidney Lowe thought it would is to say the obvious.
Tracy Smith was hurt, C.J. Leslie wasn't ready, Ryan Harrow wasn’t ready, Lorenzo Brown had game but no scoring touch. All true, but irrelevant with just four conference games left before the ACC tournament. Smith’s had time to heal and the kids have had time to learn. State played well against Clemson, pretty well against Maryland on the road until they folded down the stretch, and they should be ready for this one against Carolina if, that is, they’re ever going to be ready before this season ends.
Lot of light blue in the RBC Center tonight, more than I remember at previous State home games against Carolina. It is loud, though. The fans will be into it if the Pack gives them reason to be.
And State does give them reason, battling to the final three minutes before Ryan Harrow, running a 3-on-2 break with State trailing 59-64, makes an uncharacteristically lousy, backward pass that's picked off by Kendell Marshall. Shortly, Harrison Barnes (16 points to lead all scorers despite 6 of 17 shooting from the floor) buries a 3 and Carolina's lead is eight again at 67-59 with two minutes remaining. At the end, it's UNC 75-63.
Key statistics: UNC wins the boards 47-33 and collects 19 offensive rebounds leading to 20 second-chance points; State had 12 offensive boards but only six second-chance points. In a game where neither team shot well, UNC's 14-point advantage on the offensive glass was the difference.
State loses at home on a night when Carolina doesn't play particularly well. The effort was there for State. The talent wasn't. The box score is here along with a game writeup from the Wolfpack sports information department.
Early on, it's all State.
They're doubling everything inside defensively, and offensively I count eight State players who contribute in the first nine minutes as State builds a 19-9 lead. Off the bench, Jordan Vandenberg has a dunk (on a nice assist from Lorenzo Brown), a tough rebound and gets the crowd with him as he fouls UNC center Tyler Zeller and knocks him to the floor. If Zeller is 7'0, what does that make Vandenberg, who's at least an inch taller and is a lot bigger and stronger? (Also slower.) Javi Gonzalez has a 3, C.J. Williams is hustling, and the starting five of Brown, Harrow, Leslie, Wood and Smith have all scored.
And then, of course, the tide turns. Because State is not a good shooting team, is pretty good but not UNC's equal on the inside, and plays tough defense sometimes but not all the time, the Pack can't hold the lead. Over the final 11 minutes of the first half, State scores a grand total of 10 points. Thank goodness UNC can't hit either (Harrison Barnes: 0-6 from the floor). You could attribute it to good defense. That's part of it. But the other part is, Carolina's not a good shooting team at all. They do however, manage to go 3 of 8 from the arc (McDonald, Strickland and Marshall have one each) to State's 2 of 10 (Wood, Gonzalez). UNC also benefits from a strange intentional foul called against Wood for reaching in on Barnes as he was driving baseline. Barnes hit two free throws, and then on the ensuing possession Zeller, fouled by Williams, hit two more, cutting State's six point lead (23-17) to two (23-21).
At the half, UNC has gone ahead 31-29. The 3s are wide open for Carolina as State battles to contain Zeller and 6'10 John Henson on the inside. Stay tuned.
Sure enough, UNC extends its lead early in the second half as Barnes and Zeller hit jumpers, Kendall Marshall blows by Harrow for a layup and then Barnes hits his first 3. The game is suddenly "physical," a euphemism the sportswriters use when guys are grabbing, pushing and generally impeding in illegal ways the progress of the people they're guarding. UNC's Barnes is cutting Wood off all over the court, bumping him and laughing as the refs ignore it. He really laughs as Wood is calling for holding him at the other end. Hensen gets away with goaltending as he skies to block Harrow's scoop shot. Moments later, Leslie skies and goaltends Marshall's layup, which puts Barnes in stitches. Hensen blocks Leslie's shot and sneers at him as Leslie winds up on the floor.
Will State fight back? Yes, they do, with the heretofore unused quintet of Vandenberg at center, Smith at the 4, C.J. Williams at the 3, and Brown and Gonzalez in the backcourt. In this "physical" game where the refs aren't calling anything inside, Vandenberg is terrifically effective for a guy whose playing time has been minimal all season long. He's blocking shots (three for the game in 15 minutes), rebounding and giving Tyler Zeller fits. After State has rallied to tie the game at 50, however, Zeller gets his revenge, backing awkwardly into Vandenberg on the offensive end and then flopping to the floor as Vandenberg takes a step back from the contact. Whistle! It's a foul on Vandenberg — his 4th. Wood has just gotten his 4th on a touch foul as Reggie Bullock hit a shot from the top of the key to break the 50-all tie. It's that kind of night for State. The fact is, they're getting pushed around and out-hustled, and as you might expect, the calls favor the aggressive team, not the team being aggressed-upon.
Out of the 50-50 tie, UNC goes on a 10-2 run to lead 60-52, and while State does cut the lead to five at one point, they're struggling to score, and defensively, Barnes hits the offensive glass for two put-back dunks to help the seal the win.
I haven't seen that much of UNC this year. They didn't impress me tonight. Their big guys are good defensively (Hensen: 6 blocks) and on the offensive boards, but otherwise on offense they didn't show much. For his part, the 6'8 pre-season All-America Barnes settles far too often for jump shots that he doesn't make. Kendell Marshall is a strong ball-handler, especially for a freshmen, and a good distributor. As a guy making his own plays, though, as he must when the shot clock is running down, he's only fair. None of UNC's other guards is going to scare anybody.
State, I have seen. After 27 games, they still don't have a dependable second scorer, which makes it tough for the undersized Smith to be a dependable primary scorer for them inside. Smith worked his butt off to score 12 points tonight, but he forced up some terrible misses against double- and triple-team coverage — mainly, I think, because it was apparent that if he didn't force a shot, no one else on State was willing to take even an open shot.
State gets random points from Harrow and Gonzalez, and Leslie battled his way to 13 points tonight. albeit on 6 of 15 shooting; and Leslie had a bunch of shots blocked because, though he's a scrapper, anything he puts up from more than a foot away from the basket is an adventure. The point is, none of them is a consistent shooter and scorer and, in fact, you wince when they square up and let one go.
A year ago, 3-point specialist Scott Wood was an effective third scoring option for State after Smith and Dennis Horner, who could score inside or from 15 feet. But this year, with Horner gone, Smith hurt and nobody rising to the level of second scorer, Wood gets no open looks and has disappeared as a third, fourth or even fifth scorer. After making his first 3 tonight, Wood finished with a total of 3 on 1 of 3 shooting.
Lorenzo Brown was State's best player tonight, with eight assists, three steals and good defense — interestingly, for most of his 34 minutes, he was matched against the bigger Barnes with Wood covering UNC's 2-guard. Brown's one weakness, though, is his outside shooting. Neither Harrow nor Gonzalez, playing the point alongside Brown, is an antidote for that. In fact, the best pairing for Brown tonight was C.J. Williams, who was 3-for-7 from the floor, was able to create his own shots and played good defense as always.
Not that it made a difference, but with 1:24 left and State still down 67-59, Sidney Lowe was whistled for his first technical foul of the season and, as far as he could recall, his first in five seasons. Lowe was irate over a non-call as Hensen and Zeller combined to stuff Tracy Smith. In truth, that looked to me like a call the refs got right, as opposed to the spate of dubious calls and non-calls they'd turned in earlier — calls that elevated Lowe's blood pressure to the red zone. "I thought it was a little physical down there," Lowe said later.
Lowe described his team as "confused" and "disappointed," in the locker room, by which he seemed to mean that they thought the refs let Carolina get away with a lot on State's home floor and they didn't know why. "I'm gonna leave it at that," Lowe added, "because I don't want to get in trouble."
Still, bad calls didn't cost State this game. What cost them, as Lowe acknowledged, was that with the game on the line in the last nine minutes, State took a series of "quick, bad shots" and missed them, while Barnes started hitting for Carolina and Zeller and Hensen took control on the boards. State battled, it's true. They just weren't good enough to get over the hump.
With three games left in the ACC (Georgia Tech, Virginia and Florida State), the Wolfpack (14-13 on the year, 4-9 in the ACC) is doomed to a sub-.500 record in the league and, if they don't watch it, they could end up under .500 overall. All three of their remaining games are winnable, and it's not impossible that if one of the guards starts scoring, then Wood will start scoring and Smith will have more maneuvering room inside and State could win a couple or three games in the ACC tournament. So 19-14 is possible, 17-15 more likely, and either should net an NIT bid.