There’s always a danger in playing a team that just came off a bad performance.
N.C. State was eager to redeem itself after an embarrassing 47-24 home loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday. And North Carolina was coming off one of its most satisfying wins of the season, a 79-69 rematch victory over Louisville, after having lost at home to the Cardinals by 21 points one month earlier.
But there was little to worry about Tuesday, because the eighth-ranked Tar Heels dismantled the Wolfpack 113-96 at the Dean Smith Center. The game had gotten so out of hand that some Tar Heels’ fans began leaving with more than seven minutes left.
The Tar Heels’ defense was far from great — the Wolfpack finished shooting 50 percent from the floor — and they were careless with the ball after they got a big lead, turning it over 13 times in the second half.
But the Tar Heels couldn’t miss. They shot 56 percent and made 31 free throw attempts, both season-highs.
“There were a lot of things that I really, really liked,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Shooting 56 percent for the game, but I don’t like the fact that they shot 50 (percent).”
The Wolfpack shot much better than it did against Virginia Tech (17 percent). N.C. State guard Braxton Beverley, who was 0 of 12 against the Hokies, was five of seven against the Tar Heels and four of five from behind the 3-point line.
But it did not matter much, because the Tar Heels overwhelmed the Wolfpack.
Senior forward Luke Maye dominated N.C. State again. He scored 31 points and had 12 rebounds. Maye has averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds in his last four games against the Wolfpack.
Freshman guard Coby White finished with 21 points and seniors Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams had 17 points each.
The Tar Heels (18-4, 8-1 ACC) have now won six consecutive games and continue to play their best basketball of the season, even with injuries to key players. UNC sophomore forward Sterling Manley missed his 10th consecutive game with a sore left knee, but is expected to return soon. And freshman guard/forward Leaky Black missed his second game with a left ankle sprain.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. The Tar Heels are a more focused team
After the 83-62 loss to Louisville last month, the Tar Heels had to go back to the drawing board and figure out what was wrong. One of the things they figured out was how they practiced often determined how they played.
Williams said last month that the team had two “mediocre practices” before the Louisville game at home. Then they lost.
“That’s the last time we’ve had crappy practice the day before or two days before a game,” Williams said. “Since then the preparation and focus in practice immediately before a game has been really good.”
It has resulted in a six-game winning streak. The Tar Heels’ average margin of victory in those games is 14.3 points per game. While three of those wins — Notre Dame, at Miami, at Georgia Tech — have come against ACC teams ranked in the bottom of the conference, three — Virginia Tech, at Louisville, N.C. State — have come against ACC teams that are likely to make the NCAA tournament.
Against Louisville on Saturday, and N.C. State on Tuesday, UNC led by double-digits heading into halftime. In the second half of the Louisville game, the Tar Heels committed only two turnovers. In the first half of the N.C. State game, the Tar Heels turned it over only four times in the first half. It appears to be the result of a more focused team.
“Just how hard we’re practicing, our attention to detail for scout days,” UNC sophomore forward Garrison Brooks said, when asked what’s different in practice. “Listening to (Coach) and doing what he says.”
2. Garrison Brooks a big piece to the puzzle
Brooks had eight points, 10 rebounds, six assists and no turnovers against N.C. State. One of his biggest plays came midway through the first half when he received a pass from White with two seconds left on the shot clock.
Brooks pump-faked, got N.C. State’s DJ Funderburk in the air, drove past him, and dunked it before the buzzer sounded.
That gave UNC a 10-point lead in the first half. N.C. State never got closer than that.
Brooks is averaging 7.2 points per game and 7.2 rebounds during the Tar Heels’ six-game winning streak. UNC senior guard Kenny Williams believes he could be the difference-maker for the Tar Heels going forward.
“I think our young bigs are better and they understand the game and know what to expect on a nightly basis,” he said, when asked the difference between the team this year and the one last year. “Garrison has been playing so great lately. I think he’s ready for any matchup that comes his way.”
Coach Williams said aside from his foul trouble, Brooks is dependable.
“We can count on him to be in the right spot and I think his defense on the screen on the ball is extremely important to us in this game, just like it was over there.”
3. Luke Maye takes it up another notch against State
When Maye plays against N.C. State, you can almost guarantee that he’ll have a good performance. Maye has four 30-point games in his career. Three of those 30-point games have come against the Wolfpack.
He scored 31 and 33 points in the two games against State in 2018. He scored 21 points in Raleigh in January and 31 on Tuesday. He has had a double-double in each of his last four games against the Wolfpack.
“I think I match up pretty well against them,” Maye said. “Just being an in-state kid...I always get fired up to play in-state schools and it’s kind of like a mindset I have.”
Maye was 10 of 15 from the floor and 10 of 10 from the free throw line. He made one 3-pointer from the corner off a broken play, as the shot clock expired. Maye’s 31 points is a season-high. Prior to that, he hadn’t scored more than the 24 points he scored in the season-opener against Wofford on Nov. 6.
Maye had a breakout season last year, averaging 16.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds. This year, his shooting percentages are down some. He is averaging 14.1 points per game, and 9.8 rebounds.
Maye disagrees with the notion that he got off to a sluggish start this season.
“We have a lot of guys that can score and I just missed some shots,” he said. “I’ve been shooting the same shots that I’ve always shot and they just haven’t gone in for me... At the end of the day, I’m a great player, in my opinion, and I think every time I shoot the ball it’s going in.”