Wolfpack, Tar Heels moving on different paths

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2013 

— How many times this season had North Carolina coach Roy Williams questioned his team’s effort, its toughness? How many times had he wondered aloud about its heart and desire?

Yet there was Williams on Saturday, going down the length of his bench, trading emphatic high-fives and hugs with his players. By then, about 27 seconds remained in the Tar Heels’ 76-65 victory against N.C. State at the Smith Center, and emotion poured from Williams.

For once in this long, odd season, it was positive emotion: Jubilation. Pride.

“He was happy, man,” Dexter Strickland, UNC’s senior guard, said of Williams. “He was very happy after the game – talked to us a lot. I can’t say everything he said.”

Williams arrived at UNC in the late 1960s, a freshman from the North Carolina mountains new to an already-old rivalry. Some of his close friends went to N.C. State, and they gave him grief. Williams cites those times often when he explains why games against the Wolfpack mean a bit more to him – why they carry an added edge.

And so Williams always savors victories against N.C. State. He might savor this one more.

It came less than a month after UNC suffered a humiliating defeat in Raleigh against N.C. State. The Tar Heels made that one respectable in the end, not that Williams cared to think about the eight-point final margin. What stuck with him more was how the Wolfpack at one point led that game by 28 points.

“That was our mindset – hey, we remember what happened last time,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s freshman point guard, said on Saturday. “That’s not going to happen like that again, especially on our home court. So we just wanted to make a statement.”

And what statement was that? Leslie McDonald, the Heels’ junior guard, might have described it best.

“We’re contenders,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’re not backing down. We’re not ready to let go of our state.”

McDonald laughed at his wit. He knew what he was saying – the “our state” line a reference to the billboards that N.C. State has put up around North Carolina. After the Wolfpack’s dominance against UNC in Raleigh, it was difficult to argue with the slogan.

But times have changed. Since the Wolfpack and Tar Heels had last met, both teams had gone through humbling experiences. After beating UNC, N.C. State lost three consecutive games – a stretch that coincided with the ankle injury that Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown suffered in the first of those defeats, at Virginia.

The Heels, meanwhile, recovered from the humiliation in Raleigh and won three in a row only to come crashing down during a 26-point loss at Miami – one of the worst of Williams’ head coaching tenure. That loss forced Williams to abandon his conventional approach and go small.

Yet after rough times, both teams entered Saturday with momentum. Only one team left with it.

“There’s no question it’s a much different team than we played earlier,” Williams said of his own players. “I mean, some of those guys earlier, when State makes that run and takes a four-point lead, they would have started dropping their head. And today we didn’t. We just kept playing.”

The Tar Heels weren’t mentally tough early in the season. Losses against Butler and Indiana and Texas proved that. So, too, did the performance after a ride down the Interstate to N.C. State’s PNC Arena.

At long last, though, the Tar Heels appear to be becoming the team they hoped they’d be all along. Since going small, the Heels are running better. They’re defending better. They’re playing with more urgency. They’re confident.

“We’ve done a lot of good things,” James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s sophomore forward, said. “… But I don’t know if you can say we’ve figured it out. I think we’ve still got to keep working … knowing that we can’t be content with where we’re at.”

N.C. State, meanwhile, can’t be content with where it’s at. The Wolfpack entered the season with expectations higher than they had been in three decades. A top-10 preseason ranking brought back memories – at least for those who were around to experience them – of better times in the 1970s and 80s.

Yet while the Tar Heels appear to have solved issues that have plagued them for much of the season, N.C. State on Saturday looked no closer to putting an end to problems that emerged in November. C.J. Leslie, the junior forward, struggled through a disastrous six-point, six-turnover performance. Brown, so dominant against UNC in Raleigh, finished with 12 points and 12 assists but didn’t come close to controlling the game the way he’s capable.

Defensively, N.C. State left open UNC’s shooters and they often took advantage. The Heels made nine of their 21 3-pointers. Mark Gottfried, the Wolfpack’s second-year coach, attributed his team’s downfall to one poor four-minute stretch late in the second half when UNC took over the game with a 19-4 run.

“I liked the way our guys competed,” Gottfried said. “… We can beat ourselves up, which we probably will, but at the end of the day we correct some things and get better at some things and we could have had a different outcome today.”

Brown put it another way.

"We've had some bad losses,” he said. “The best thing to do is stay positive and stay together.”

Those calm reactions don’t resemble the fiery ones Williams and his players had after some of their most difficult defeats this season. After his team’s loss at N.C. State, for instance, Williams challenged his players to grow up, and he said learning experiences are “for babies.”

Yet his team’s play on Saturday indicated that the learning experiences have helped. The Tar Heels have grown, and in the past two weeks have changed the direction of their season. That was cause for Williams’ emotion in the final moments, and his words – whatever they might have been – in the locker room.

For UNC, Saturday felt like the continuation of its recent rebirth. N.C. State, meanwhile, might have been wondering how it’s come to this – another disappointing loss late in a season that began with so much promise.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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