RALEIGH — Come March, the North Carolina men's basketball team might look back on Tuesday's 77-63 win over N.C. State and pinpoint exactly when its season was saved.
A three-game ACC losing streak was in danger of turning into four when the Tar Heels found new life at the Wolfpack's expense and pushed their way back into the win column.
Twenty points from senior Deon Thompson, including two on a raucous second-half dunk, and a strong defensive effort gave the Heels their seventh straight win over the Wolfpack and perhaps some confidence going forward.
"You hope it's a big boost," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who improved to 13-1 against N.C. State since returning to Chapel Hill in 2003.
Thompson's dunk at 10:04 left the lone returning starter from last year's national title team pounding his chest and what could be a snapshot of the turning point of what has been a disappointing ACC start for the Tar Heels (13-7, 2-3 ACC).
Thompson started the key play with a steal and then dribbled coast-to-coast, around Javier Gonzalez and then dunked on Scott Wood to cap a 13-0 game-changing UNC run.
"It was exciting, and it uplifted everybody and got everyone going," Thompson said. "It was kind of a turning point in the game for us."
The Heels had trailed by five points three minutes into the second half when the Wolfpack's offense froze. State missed 12 straight shots in an eight-minute span which saw a 43-38 lead turn into a 51-43 deficit.
"We went ice cold, and they got hot," Gonzalez said.
UNC hit 15 of 26 shots (57.7 percent) during the second half, a stark contrast to the 38.6 percent State held Duke to in an 88-74 win by the Wolfpack in the same building a week ago today.
Tracy Smith, who led the Wolfpack with 20 points, watched a part of the scoring drought from the bench with three fouls, and when he was in the game, he was helpless without the ball.
Fronted by Ed Davis, a surprise starter in spite of an ankle injury, and defended by Thompson, Smith couldn't get the ball to stop the bleeding.
"It was frustrating because the guards couldn't get me the ball," Smith said. "Then when I picked up my fourth foul, it was hard for me to get back in the game and be aggressive."
Thompson, a senior, did what was expected for the preseason No. 6 team, but it was the perimeter support of guards Larry Drew II (18 points) and Dexter Strickland (14 points) that had been missing in consecutive ACC losses to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
Strickland, UNC's quickest guard, gave the Heels an option in transition and a chance for easy points. The Wolfpack couldn't find many points in the second half, easy or otherwise, shooting 9-of-31 (29 percent) and scoring 30 points.
Gonzalez (19 points), who scored eight points in a 97-second span at the end of the first half, tried to help Smith, but the Wolfpack's other three starters combined for 16 points on 5-of-24 shooting.
"That makes it tough," State coach Sidney Lowe said. "They did a nice job [defending Tracy], but I didn't think we did a good job of getting him the ball."
State actually opened the second half with strong shooting and a quick 10-1 burst. Wood hit a 3-point basket on the first possession and Gonzalez buried one at 17:45, but the lead, and State's offensive supply, quickly dissipated.
Williams attributed part of Tuesday's win to luck and another part to the grueling practices he put his players through on Saturday and Sunday.
"I wasn't very nice to them, and they answered," Williams said.
The only question now is where do the Heels go from here?
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