N.C. State played well enough on Saturday to beat most ACC teams, just not the first-place team.
The Wolfpack turned in one of its best defensive performances of the season but still lost 67-55 to No. 5 North Carolina at the Smith Center.
Such is the strength of UNC (16-2, 5-0 ACC) this season. The Tar Heels found a way to win by double-digits without its proverbial fastball.
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Stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige combined for nine points, the same total as N.C. State guard Cat Barber scored, but UNC’s depth was too much to overcome.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was impressed with UNC before the game and even more so after the Tar Heels’ unconventional win.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Gottfried said. “I’ve watched a lot of teams play. I was an assistant coach on a national championship team and you’re looking at a team that has every ingredient they need.”
The key ingredient Saturday was forward Kennedy Meeks, who had 18 of his 23 points in the second half, after N.C. State played the Heels to a 29-29 standstill at the break.
The Wolfpack (10-8, 0-5 ACC) couldn’t have played much better on defense. The Tar Heels shot a season-low 37.9 percent — the only time this season it has shot less than 40 percent and only fifth time less than 50 percent.
And UNC scored 20 points less than its season average of 87.6 points per game, which ranks second in the NCAA.
But even bottling up Johnson (six points), who has been UNC’s top scorer this season, and Paige, who has tortured the Wolfpack in the past, wasn’t enough to pull off the upset.
“Kennedy got going and that really hurt us,” N.C. State forward Abdul-Malik Abu said. “I feel like we held everybody (else) to an average game or below average game.”
Paige, in particular, was neutralized by N.C. State’s defense. Paige missed all six of his 3-point attempts and finished with three points in 31 minutes.
“That guy has been amazing against us,” Gottfried said. “That was a big thing for us, not to let Paige get going. We accomplished that, so we did accomplish something.”
N.C. State also might have figured out a way to play to crack the win column in the ACC. Just like last year’s game in Chapel Hill, a 58-46 win, the Wolfpack slowed the pace and took its time on offense and got after it on defense.
Barber was held to a season-low nine points, and didn’t score in the second half, but the Wolfpack’s offense had more balance.
Abu led the team with 12 points and 14 rebounds. Maverick Rowan and Cody Martin, inserted in the starting lineup for his twin brother, Caleb, each added 10. Caleb Martin and Barber each finished with nine points.
Gottfried was pleased with a more balanced effort, much of this season has been Barber doing all of the heavy lifting, just not the turnovers.
N.C. State turned the ball over 18 times, nine in each half. That will have to be cleaned up, as will the 21 offensive rebounds it yielded.
“Every game unfolds a little bit differently but … we need to be smart about how we need to play for us,” Gottfried said.
A loss is a loss is a loss but Cody Martin said there was some confidence to be gained from Saturday’s effort.
“We did take a step forward as a team,” Martin said.
And Gottfried was confident, despite the conference record, his team would keep moving forward.
“We’re going to keep swinging and get better and find a way,” Gottfried said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio