Halfway through the second half Wednesday night, Virginia Tech rebounded a Dennis Smith Jr. miss. As the Virginia Tech player attempted to dribble up court, N.C. State wing Maverick Rowan stole the basketball from behind. He then rose for a layup before changing his mind mid-air and threw a behind-the-back pass to Smith for the dunk.
That was the effort N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried and his players said was missing against Miami a week before, and the effort the Wolfpack (12-3, 1-1 ACC) needs to win against rival North Carolina (13-3, 1-1 ACC) at the Dean Smith Center on Saturday.
“We’ve got to be at the top of our game,” Gottfried said. “We’ve got to execute our offense, defend them really well. They’re great off the backboard. You’ve got to rebound it really well, so we’ll have our hands full and our guys will be excited about playing.”
Rebounding is what the Wolfpack did well against No. 21 Virginia Tech. It outrebounded the Hokies 40-25, limiting second chance points. Those were needed because the Hokies missed early and often against the Wolfpack’s zone defense.
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The Tar Heels average 45 rebounds per game, the Wolfpack 39.2. UNC senior forward Kennedy Meeks is one of the best offensive rebounders in the ACC. He had 10 offensive rebounds in an 89-86 overtime win earlier this week against Clemson. The rebounds gave the Tar Heels extra possessions, and opportunities to kick it out and find an often open Joel Berry, who finished with 31 points.
“I think Joel Berry is one of the best point guards in the country,” Gottfried said. “I’ve watched him since high school. Great respect for Joel and his game, and he’s one of the best there is.”
Smith was the main story Wednesday, with a triple-double that included 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
Abdul-Malik Abu had 20 points on 9 for 9 shooting, and Terry Henderson had 22 points.
“We’ve got a special player in Dennis,” Gottfried said after Wednesday’s game, “but it ain’t about him either. It’s about all of us. All of them know that. For us to be a great team it’s got to be about all of us.”
The Tar Heels are getting healthy at the right time. UNC senior wing player Theo Pinson is expected to make his season debut. Pinson injured his foot prior to the season and has been out since.
Limiting the Tar Heels’ transition opportunities will be key, too.
“That’s big. That’s their name of the game, transition and offensive rebounding,” Henderson said. “They do some things in the half-court that they’re good at. Justin Jackson, he’s aggressive. He’s going to shoot his shots. But other than that if we get back in transition and keep them off the glass we should be fine hopefully.”
Last year, the two teams split the series, each winning at home by 12 points.
For many players on N.C. State’s team, it will be their first time playing in the UNC-State rivalry.
Henderson remembers the excitement of watching his future teammates beat UNC and dancing in the locker room with the other players after the win.
“I was like it’s really big time,” Henderson said. “Just seeing how much energy and how much people pay attention to that game is unbelievable.”
Smith on the other hand didn’t put much stock into it. “It’ll be a fun game,” he said. “We just look at it as another game. We just want to come in and dominate.”
N.C. State at North Carolina
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV/Radio: ESPN, 101.5-WRAL