There was plenty to celebrate after N.C. State’s first win at North Carolina since 2003.
The Wolfpack’s defense and guards carried them to a 58-46 win at No. 15 UNC on Tuesday night.
It’s the first time the Wolfpack has won at the Smith Center against UNC coach Roy Williams, breaking an 11-game skid, and it’s the first time N.C. State has won consecutive road games against ranked opponents since the 2003-04 season.
"I know the Wolfpack nation is excited tonight and they should be," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "We're going to get home tonight, it's 10:30, and we're all going to raise our glass tonight. I'm going to raise mine, I can promise you that."
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With three straight ACC wins, two on the road against top 20 RPI teams, there's no doubt N.C. State (17-11, 8-7 ACC) has bolstered its postseason resume.
If the 74-65 win at Louisville on Feb. 14 pushed the Wolfpack into the NCAA tournament conversation, Tuesday’s win could get them out of a return trip to the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.
The Wolfpack believes it can still do much more than just get to the NCAA tournament.
"I know teams are like 'What the world is N.C. State doing right now?' " sophomore guard Cat Barber said. "The way we're playing right now is kind of scary and we're just going to keep getting better."
The extra rest, instead of an extra round in the NCAA tournament, would do N.C. State some good but senior guard Ralston Turner said it’s not time to worry about those scenarios yet.
"We're trying to live in the moment," said Turner, who scored 14 points. "We're not really talking about March yet."
There’s still three games before the ACC tournament, two of which are on the road. There’s also the propensity for N.C. State to have a letdown after a win over either Duke or UNC. Gottfried said his team has to handle success and continue to win to secure a fourth straight NCAA tournament bid.
"We're not anywhere near being a lock or anything for the tournament," Gottfried said. "We have to be able to come back after a game like this and play well in the next game."
N.C. State has put together a three-game winning streak on the strength of its defense. The Wolfpack held the Tar Heels to the fewest points it has ever scored in the Smith Center, which opened in 1986.
The Tar Heels shot 34.5 percent as a team and only two players, forward Kennedy Meeks (12 points) and guard Justin Jackson (16 points) scored in double figures, half as many as they had in an 81-79 win in Raleigh on Jan. 14.
The Wolfpack held UNC guard Marcus Paige, who has been outstanding against them, to seven points on eight shots. Paige, who had averaged 18.8 points per game in his career against State, finished with seven assists but was never really able to get in gear. After going 5 of 5 in Raleigh from 3-point range, Paige made only one 3-pointer on Tuesday.
There was a clear strategy by N.C. State to make someone besides Paige, who had 23 and 35 in the previous two wins over the Wolfpack, beat them. N.C. State sloughed off guard J.P. Tokoto (1 of 6) and Jackson (7 of 17), and basically invited them to shoot.
All while doubling forward Meeks and Brice Johnson (four points) in the post.
"You have to know your personnel," Gottfried said. "We had so many breakdowns mentally in the first game we didn't really defend their personnel properly. We stayed with the plan of guarding certain guys, certain ways."
N.C. State paired the defensive intensity with a methodical approach on offense. Barber, who drew the main assignment on Paige, had a team-best 15 points. Turner and Trevor Lacey added 14 each, giving the trio 43 of the team's 58 points.
N.C. State, which led 29-18 at the half and 34-18 before UNC made a run, was very patient in the half court set. Often milking the shot clock and letting either Lacey or Turner go one-on-one.
"We were smart with the ball," Lacey said.
When UNC cut the Wolfpack's lead to 36-32 with 12:29 left in the second half, it was senior Desmond Lee who made a pair of free throws to stop the bleeding. And then a five-point spurt by Turner to crack some breathing room.
A 3 by Paige off an inbounds set at 2:33 cut N.C. State's lead to 50-46 but a three-point play by Lacey at 1:34 effectively put the game away.
Good guard play and a strong defense is a proven formula in the NCAA tournament. N.C. State took a step closer to that goal with Tuesday's win.