CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina and N.C. State entered the Smith Center on Saturday searching for the same things – an important victory against a rival and hope going forward after their shared poor starts in ACC play.
The Tar Heels talked about the opportunity ahead of themselves.
“It (was) a great opportunity for us, especially coming in – the positions that both teams were in,” James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, said following North Carolina’s 84-70 victory – which seemed even more dominant than the 14-point margin suggested. “We both needed this win. But it’s a great day to be a Tar Heel.”
McAdoo smiled. He hadn’t played all that well offensively – he made just four of his 15 shots from the field, and again struggled at the free throw line – but his performance was indicative of his team’s. The Tar Heels shot 40.6 percent and they labored through an ugly, uninspired second half.
Yet they didn’t need to be at their best, not with the kind of offensive performance – and offensive, in another sense of the word – that the Wolfpack offered in the first half. It was, as Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said, a “really bad” half for N.C. State, which made 10 of its 40 first-half field goal attempts.
“We just looked dazed in the first half,” Gottfried said. “We looked like a dazed team.”
The Wolfpack (14-8, 4-5 ACC) missed 10 of its first 11 shots from the field, and made two field goal attempts in the first eight minutes. By then, with about 12 minutes left to play in the first half, North Carolina (14-7, 4-4) led 18-4 and the Tar Heels led by double-digits for the rest of the game.
“The first punch we threw was pretty (big),” Marcus Paige, North Carolina’s sophomore guard, said. “And that can have an effect on a team, obviously, if they can’t get anything going, and our defense is great, crowd is into it. Especially because they’re not a super old team.
“They start a lot of freshmen and sophomores – maybe it rattled them a little bit.”
Few of N.C. State’s players appeared as rattled as Cat Barber, the freshman guard. He missed eight of his 11 attempts in the first half, and routinely forced shots that ended possessions. The Tar Heels weren’t sharp, either, in the first half but the Wolfpack made them look good.
North Carolina improved to 11-0 at the Smith Center against N.C. State since Roy Williams became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 2003. The outcome was a routine and familiar one for the Tar Heels and Williams, who is 21-2 overall against N.C. State.
This victory might have carried more meaning, though, given that it evened UNC’s ACC record after its 0-3 conference start. The Tar Heels, once 1-4 in the ACC, have now won three consecutive league games.
“I do think it says a great deal about the character of the kids we have that they didn’t get down when it was 0-3 and 1-4,” Williams said. “They didn’t start pointing fingers at anybody else. They accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better.”
Williams said that earlier in the week, he told the Tar Heels they were close to becoming “a good basketball team,” but they needed to maintain their intensity for longer stretches. They had it on Saturday, even while they plodded through a second half in which they shot 38.9 percent.
Despite the shooting woes, UNC – led by 20 points from senior guard Leslie McDonald – never was seriously challenged after it built that 18-4 lead. The Tar Heels led by as many as 22 points early in the second half and by 22 again with about eight minutes left, after N.C. State, which shot 65.4 percent in the second half, had trimmed its deficit to 13.
The Tar Heels walked off the court believing they hadn’t even played all that well, yet they were rarely challenged. That was a sign, Paige and McAdoo said, of improvement – a sign that North Carolina might be developing into a team whose intensity and effort can compensate for deficiencies.
“I wouldn’t say that the ship is all the way righted,” said Paige, who finished with 15 points. “We’ve got some things we need to get better at, and obviously we can play better than we did in the second half tonight.
“But we’re going in the right direction and now we can work on our Xs and Os and stuff – we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re going to play hard.”
In the final moments the North Carolina student section chanted “not our rival,” and Williams motioned for them to stop.
“We’ve got to play them again,” he told them.
The teams will play in Raleigh near the end of the month and near the end of their regular-season schedules. They had both arrived at the Smith Center on Saturday seeking momentum to carry them in the coming weeks, and neither team left satisfied with how they’d played.
Not that the Tar Heels minded the result.
“Some teams have to play their very best every game to win,” said McAdoo, who finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds. “And I think the fact that we didn’t play our very best today (and won) shows that we are getting better.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter