The way North Carolina had been playing entering its game against N.C. State, it looked like the Tar Heels might just do in the first half what it took them an entire game to do last season against the Wolfpack.
And yet it took a while for UNC to surpass the 46 points it scored in that ugly loss against N.C. State last February. The beleaguered Wolfpack, its numbers thinned by injuries and attrition, hung around for a while, however, against the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Finally, though, what had always appeared as inevitable began to become reality, and UNC pulled away in the second half for a 67-55 victory at the Smith Center. A work of art it was not for UNC, which shot 34.4 percent – its worst shooting performance in a half this season.
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The Tar Heels looked sluggish for long stretches and N.C. State, which entered with losses in its first four conference games, appeared energized by the prospect of an upset and by repeating what the Wolfpack had done in this building last year.
N.C. State left Chapel Hill last February with a 58-46 victory, its first at UNC since 2003. It had been that long, too, since the Wolfpack had won the second of back-to-back games at the Smith Center.
For a while it seemed possible on Saturday. The Wolfpack slowed the tempo and played perhaps its best defensive game of the season, and it was tied at 29 at halftime.
N.C. State, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation, frustrated UNC early with its ability to rebound its missed shots. The Wolfpack did that often early on in the first half, and turned its eight offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, struggled to develop the kind of offensive rhythm that defined recent victories at Syracuse and Florida State. UNC scored 84 points against Syracuse’s formidable 2-3 zone and, before that, the Tar Heels put on an offensive show in a 106-90 victory at Florida State.
UNC had a far more difficult time scoring on Saturday. With about 12 minutes remaining, though, it surpassed the 46 points it scored in last season’s loss to N.C. State. The Tar Heels led by nine points then, and then stretched their lead to 12 on a Justin Jackson 3 with about seven minutes left.
N.C. State didn’t go away away, though. They trailed by seven with less than four minutes to play before Kennedy Meeks rebounded a missed shot and scored to put UNC back ahead by nine. Meeks, making his first start since UNC’s loss at Texas on Dec. 12, was the difference.
He finished with 23 points, 18 of them in the second half. And after that put-back that gave UNC a 61-52 lead, he blocked a layup attempt from Cat Barber with less than three minutes remaining. From there, Joel Berry scored on a layup that gave UNC an 11-point lead.
Again the Wolfpack tried to come back. A Maverick Rowan 3-pointer cut UNC’s lead to 63-55 but N.C. State, led by 12 points from Abdul-Malik Abu and 10 from Rowan and Cody Martin, never came closer. Barber, the Wolfpack junior guard, finished with a season-low nine points.
The Tar Heels won amid their worst shooting performance of the season (37.9 percent from the field), and with their fewest points of the season. They had scored at least 80 points in 13 consecutive games, and they had shot at least 50 percent from the field in 13 games, and in 10 of their past 11 entering Saturday.
Given the way the teams entered the game, with UNC playing at its highest level of the season and with N.C. State having lost its first four ACC games, the game appeared to have the potential to get ugly – as in the form of a one-sided UNC victory.
Instead it was ugly in a different way. Neither team played all that well offensively, both shooting around 40 percent. Points were difficult to come by, at times. And UNC, which had won pretty recently, won in a different way against an old rival.