RALEIGH — North Carolina beat N.C. State, again, on Tuesday for the 12th straight time.
The end result was the same for the Tar Heels, who have won 18 of 19 games in the series under coach Roy Williams, but the 86-74 road win had a different feel from previous meetings.
For one, the Tar Heels got a career-high 22 points from pass-first point guard Kendall Marshall, to keep them in a first-place tie in the ACC race and to keep the Wolfpack without a scalp for its NCAA tournament profile.
Marshall added his usual 13 assists without a turnover notably finding forward Harrison Barnes for 20 points, but it was Marshall's shooting touch which gave the Heels (24-4, 11-2 ACC) an unusual win, and caught the Wolfpack (18-10, 7-6 ACC) off guard.
"I didn't know he could shoot like that," said Wolfpack guard Lorenzo Brown, who scored 18 points. "I guess he has been in the gym lately."
As a team, UNC made 10 of 19 from 3-point range, the most it has made in an ACC game this season and its best percentage (52.6) since going 11 of 18 at kentucky on Dec. 3.
Those of you who have seen us play a lot this year, we keep talking about the nights when we shoot the ball in the hole, we can be really good," Williams said. "And I thought we shot it the best weve shot it all year long.
Marshall established a new career-best with four 3-pointers. He hadn't hit more than two 3s in a game before Tuesday. He had three in the first half. It was the shooting, combined with the 13-0 assist-to-turnover ratio, which caused Williams to call his point guard's performance, over 38 minutes, "phenomenal."
The game was also different because N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie found success inside against UNC's long-armed shot-blocker, John Henson. Leslie scored a career-high 24 points, 14 in the first half, with several baskets at Henson's expense. Leslie added 12 rebounds in 29 minutes before fouling out with 90 seconds left in the game.
Leslie and N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried had a brief exchange in the team huddle during the first timeout of the game, because of Leslie's slow start on defense, Gottfried said, but the coach loved how Leslie responded.
Gottfried said Leslie was able to use his quickness and take Henson, who had 18 blocks in the previous three games against the Wolfpack, off the dribble. Leslie thought the reason for his success was more simple.
"I was more focused," Leslie said.
The Pack needed to refocus after UNC jumped out to an early lead, 19-5 in the first 6 minutes. The Pack tied the score at 30 with an 11-point mini-burst by Leslie with 7 minutes and 24 seconds left in the first half.
But like the previous 11 games, which the Heels won by an average 16.1 points per game, UNC's talent was too much for the Wolfpack. The Heels kept coming in waves and State ran out of comebacks.
The ebb-and-flow of the loss reminded Gottfried of previous missed opportunities this season against Indiana, Syracuse and Vanderbilt.
"We've got spurts," Gottfried said. "We just can't sustain it long enough."
The Tar Heels had no such problems. They widened their five-point halftime margin to 62-49 at 13:45 in the second half. The Pack responded with six straight points but UNC pounded the ball inside to Tyler Zeller (14 points, eight rebounds) and Henson (14 points, 13 boards), who did finish with two blocks, to create enough space to prevent any end-game drama by the Wolfpack.
N.C. State came up empty in a three-game stretch against the top three teams in the ACC. The Wolfpack gets Miami, a top 50 team in the RPI at home next week, but it will enter the ACC tournament without a win over the Heels or Duke, the top two ACC teams in the RPI.
"We've still got a lot left on the table," Gottfried said.
UNC, meanwhile, has all of its preseason goals in front of them the ACC title, the national title as its rounds into postseason form. If Marshall shoots like he did Tuesday, there might not be any stopping the Tar Heels.
Giglio: (919) 829-8938