N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts had Wolfpack fans roaring Saturday, taking the court at PNC Arena with a bright red blazer.
There’s never been any doubt North Carolina is the Pack’s biggest rival, and every game against the Tar Heels a big game. Keatts, in his first year as coach, senses that and embraces that.
And the two teams played it that way, trading baskets, trading runs, before No. 21 North Carolina emerged with a 96-89 victory.
UNC junior forward Luke Maye was all but unstoppable in the second half, scoring 27 of his 33 points. Jumpers, putbacks, drives, 3-pointers … Maye did it all while finishing with 17 rebounds.
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“Luke Maye was pretty special today,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
If there was any leftover fatigue from UNC’s emotional 82-78 win over Duke on Thursday, it didn’t show. Not for Maye or the Heels (19-7, 8-5 ACC).
The Tar Heels’ near-flawless offensive efficiency in the second half – UNC hit 25 of 32 shots, 78.1 percent from the field – and work on the offensive boards was more than N.C. State (16-9, 6-6) could overcome. N.C. State had a 19-0 run in the first half and led by two points at the break, but the Pack could not handle the Tar Heels defensively in the second half and gave up 21 second-chance points.
Every time the Pack made it a one-possession game in the second half, Maye would hit a shot, or Joel Berry II a drive, or Kenny Willams a timely 3-pointer.
A three-point play by the Pack senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu with 1:33 left in regulation — Abu with a big dunk — pulled N.C. State within 85-83 and the place was loud. But Williams then nailed a 3-pointer from the key at 1:13 and that was that.
Junior guard Torin Dorn had 22 points and graduate guard Allerik Freeman scored 17 for the Wolfpack, which has dropped its last two games after a 10-point loss earlier in the week at Virginia Tech. The Pack shot 54.7 percent from the field, scored 89 points and forced 19 turnovers, usually numbers good enough to win.
“The plays we made at the end of the game at UNC, they made the plays today,” Keatts said. “I’m proud of our guys. I thought they fought all the way to the end. We have to do a better job of closing the games and just finishing plays at the end.”
The Pack was looking for its first sweep of the Tar Heels since the 2002-03 season after beating UNC in the 95-91 overtime thriller on Jan. 27 in Chapel Hill. Adding motivation this week was Berry, a senior guard, saying Duke was the Tar Heels’ only rival.
“N.C. State, I just don’t consider that as being a rival,” Berry said. “We just don’t like them.”
The first half was filled with ebbs and flows, ending with the Pack ahead 37-35.
The Tar Heels had a 12-2 run to take a 28-18 lead midway through the half. Keatts called a timeout and his message was heard. Freshman forward Braxton Beverly quickly hit a 3-pointer and the Pack was off on its 19-0 surge fueled by seven straight points by Dorn.
When sophomore center Omer Yurtseven hit a short hook, the Wolfpack led 37-28. But there was no timeout from UNC’s Williams.
“I told them I was not going to call time out because State was kicking our rear end because we weren’t competing and they needed to grow up,” Williams said. “And we made a nice run.”
A putback by Maye ended the UNC drought as the Tar Heels reeled off seven straight points and the Pack, with poor shot selection, went scoreless the last 3:45 of the half.
Yurtseven, who’s 7-0 and 245 pounds, looked hopeless defensively against Maye early in the second half as the Heels’ 6-8, 240-pound junior scored on three straight possessions, then added a 3-pointer. After Maye had scored 11 points in the first 3:33 of the second half, Keatts was forced to pull Yurtseven from the game for a stretch.