RALEIGH — P.J. Hairston had a familiar feeling throughout N.C. States 91-83 victory over his Tar Heels Saturday.
It felt like we were playing against ourselves in practice, the UNC sophomore said. In practice we play against the walk-ons, and we run.
There was, however, one notable difference. Instead of feeling like himself, Hairston felt like one of the walk-ons.
Because they were attacking us and as a team we were just backing off, he said. We were just giving in and letting them punch us in the mouth.
The No. 18 Wolfpack raced out to a 45-26 halftime lead behind 20 fast-break points. The Tar Heels, long known for wanting to push the tempo and play as fast as possible, had zero in that same span.
During N.C. States 20-2 fist-half run, 14 of the points came on lay-ups and two came on dunks catalyzed by long Lorenzo Brown passes. To finish the run and force Roy Williams to burn a timeout, Brown rebounded a Marcus Paige miss and fed it ahead to Rodney Purvis, who finished with a slam. Another Tar Heel miss resulted in a Brown-to-T.J. Warren layup, and then Warren added his own dunk on the ensuing possession. At that point, Williams had seen enough.
I felt like that was the changing thing in the game, Richard Howell said, reciting the 20-0 fast-break advantage from memory. It was definitely big.
So was Howell, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Fellow frontcourt member C.J. Leslie also recorded a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds of his own. After years of facing formidable Tar Heel big men, like Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller, it was the Wolfpack who dominated inside.
We knew they couldnt stay with us on the glass, Howell said. It was definitely good.
Howell and the rest of the Wolfpack were in position to pull down rebounds because of the added emphasis of running not just on offense, but on defense as well. The Tar Heels had very few open looks in the first half and shot 30.3 percent from the floor (10-of-33). All but five of those misses ended up in N.C. States possession, and the attack began again.
The Wolfpacks defensive improvement in the first half didnt happen by accident it took significantly more effort than N.C. State normally exerts.
Way more, a lot more, Howell said with a laugh. We were definitely tired.
That tiredness showed in the second half, when UNC managed to close a 28-point deficit to five points. But N.C. State had just enough answers, and the first-half cushion never completely evaporated.
Weve got Richard and Calvin, who are just as good as anyone in the country as the 4 man and the 5 man, and we just played to our advantage to run the court, Rodney Purvis said. Thats playing to our strengths.
It played to UNCs strengths, too, only this time, the North Carolina starters were the one back on their heels.
Keeley 919-828-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley