by Neil Morris
Dexter Strickland's trash talk last October concerning N.C. State’s perennial hope yet perpetual futility against the Tar Heels cast the Wolfpack as a latter-day Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology damned to roll a mammoth boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down just as he reaches the summit, and to repeat this action forever. But armed with more talent, more experience and a national ranking, the Wolfpack came into Saturday night’s clash with their best chance in years to crest that mountaintop.
There were times during No. 18 N.C. State’s 91-83 victory over North Carolina that didn't resemble a basketball game so much as an exorcism. And as the Pack amassed a 28-point lead with 13 minutes left in the game, every fast break layup, every dunk and every steal felt like another deep-seated demon being cast out.
In the end, perhaps the most apt summary of this game is the same one issued by the Raleigh News & Observer (posted by N.C. State Athletics on their Facebook page last Friday) after the schools’ first game a century ago, a 26-18 win by State—then named North Carolina A&M—over the Tar Heels: “There wasn't a department in the game in which the Techs of Raleigh did not outshine the classicists of Carolina.”
N.C. State led from start to finish, propelled by a first half that saw Carolina shoot only 30 percent from the field. Lorenzo Brown scored 12 of his game-high 20 points in the opening half, during which the Wolfpack out-rebounded the Heels 27-16 and outscored them 20-0 (yes, as in zero) in fast break points.
“They were attacking us and we were just backing off,” said P.J. Hairston, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points despite only playing 17 minutes. “We were just giving in and letting them punch us in the mouth.”
Adding to Carolina’s early woes was leading scorer James Michael McAdoo picking up two fouls in the opening two minutes of the game, which limited him to only eight minutes in the first half.
“We practiced it, we drilled on it,” McAdoo said about the Wolfpack’s attack. “We knew they wanted to get out and run. We knew we had to build a wall and get back. I feel like our shot selection really catered to them getting out and filling the lanes.”
C.J. Leslie only made one basket in the first half, but it was the most memorable of the game, a tomahawk dunk over Jackson Simmons at the 6:00 mark that threw the already frenzied Wolfpack partisans into a fever pitch. That, combined with an earlier Rodney Purvis 3-pointer, sparked a 23-8 Wolfpack run to close the half.
Although it took N.C. State nearly three minutes to score following intermission, Carolina could not take advantage. Once the Pack got back on track, it built a seemingly insurmountable 61-33 lead with 13:22 remaining. But Carolina began to chip away, shrinking the margin to 17 with 6:41 left and then single-digits with five minutes remaining. But, a key sequence sealed the Tar Heels’ fate. After Bullock missed a 3-pointer that would have cut the lead to eight, Scott Wood buried a 3-pointer on the opposite end while being fouled by Strickland. The four-point play stretched the lead to 15, and while Carolina would claw as close as five points in the final 30 seconds, it was a classic case of too little, too late.
Without the benefit of coordination, Bullock employed familiar parlance to describe the debacle.
Five Wolfpack players scored in double-digits, including T.J. Warren with 19 points off the bench. Three notched double-doubles: Richard Howell (16 pts., 14 rebounds), Brown (20 pts., 11 assists) and Leslie (17 pts., 10 rebounds). Still, statistically speaking, the two teams were close in many key categories by game’s end, with the Wolfpack holding a decided edge in rebounds (42-32) and made free throws (20-9).
Regardless, over his four and a half minute postgame press conference, Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams twice stated he was “not into moral victories,” thrice observed that N.C. State “had a greater sense of urgency,” and used the term “butt kicking” three times.
“I’m not into moral victories, guys, and I’m not into this pansy kind of crap,” declared an apoplectic Williams. “We stunk.”
While N.C. State’s victory is a blessed bookend to the win over then-undefeated Duke two weeks ago, the intervening fortnight has seen a scare against Clemson and two road losses at Maryland and hapless Wake Forest. The latter loss launched a social media firestorm that appeared to envelope the Wolfpack's locker room, prompting a midweek players’ only meeting to address what Brown labelled “nonsense.”
That nonsense appears behind the Wolfpack, for now.
“I met with a lot of the guys and talked with them,” Howell said . “Hopefully, everything’s starting to pick up and we can get back on track.”
“There’s never been any pointing fingers on this team,” Brown claimed. “We all love each other to death. If anything ever happens, we come together.”
N.C. State (16-4, 5-2 ACC) quickly gets a chance to test their newfound togetherness when it goes to Virginia Tuesday for an important road game. The Wolfpack then hosts the league-leading Miami Hurricanes next Saturday, Feb. 2. Meanwhile, UNC (13-6, 3-3 ACC) travels to Chestnut Hill to face Boston College Tuesday before taking on Virginia Tech next Saturday at the Smith Center.
In the meantime, the Wolfpack can relish what Wood called “[getting] the monkey off our back.” Moreover, this big win took place in the presence of highly touted prospect Julius Randle, who was making his official recruiting visit to Raleigh this weekend. Accompanying Randle was high school senior Anthony “Cat” Barber, who has already committed to the Wolfpack. With N.C. State making inroads on the recruiting trail, Saturday’s boulder-sized triumph over their arch nemesis puts to mind a line by Prince Hal from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1:
“Think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere.”