Justin Jackson said he didn’t appreciate what was happening until halftime, after he made a 3-pointer from near the top of the key and ran off to the court while people at the Smith Center stood and cheered one of UNC’s greatest first-half performances in the history of the building.
Only then, said Jackson, the Tar Heels’ junior wing forward, did he pay attention to the margin, then 33 points wide. The numbers began running together, too, for Joel Berry, the junior point guard. At one point he caught a glimpse of the scoreboard and “I was a little surprised,” he said.
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On the other side of a room after the Tar Heels’ 107-56 victory on Sunday against N.C. State, Isaiah Hicks, the UNC senior forward, was saying that he, too, had blocked out the score – and UNC’s ever-growing margin – until it became impossible to ignore.
“I came out and looked up like, ‘Dang,’ ” Hicks said. “I mean, that’s all I could say.”
That’s just about all anyone could say amid this, the Tar Heels’ largest margin of victory in an ACC game in school history. They needed about four minutes to take a 10-point lead, and then it grew to 15 points, to 20, to 30, to 45 and kept climbing.
Nobody saw this sort of thing happening. Not Hicks and his teammates and not UNC coach Roy Williams, who spoke afterward, eight days after a stunning loss at Georgia Tech, of “how things swing so quickly” in this sport.
“I thought since it’s UNC going against North Carolina State, I thought it was going to be a little edge on their side, as well,” said Berry, who finished with 19 points and five assists. “But we came out and jumped on them.”
That was perhaps the most succinct way to put it. The details: UNC pressured N.C. State into committing 10 turnovers during the first 11 minutes and hounded the Wolfpack when it managed to generate attempts from the field. Those, though, often missed, and UNC led by 26 points midway through the first half.
Game over, essentially. This on Sunday was early-season UNC – the team that played so well in November that some wondered, with a straight face, whether these Tar Heels might be even better than the ones who played on the final night of the NCAA tournament early last April. It was a fair question about six weeks ago.
And then came the humbling: the ugly loss at Indiana, the inability to hold on late in a thriller against Kentucky and then whatever it was that ailed the Tar Heels last weekend in Atlanta, where they lost by 12 points against a Georgia Tech team that was picked to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC.
Amid those defeats were slow starts and closer-than-expected victories, sluggish wins against Davidson, Tennessee and Clemson. And there was another question, too, far different from the one in November: What happened to the team that looked so good on its way to the Maui Invitational championship?
That team returned on Sunday, after a 17-hour wait to get going. That was the length of postponement after UNC’s game against N.C. State, originally scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday, was moved to early Sunday afternoon. Berry passed the time on Saturday night, he said, watching movies, staying in.
He focused on the task ahead. He’d heard all the talk about N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr., the freshman who some say might be good enough to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft next summer. This wasn’t about Berry vs. Smith, Berry said.
Still, said Berry, “I’m a competitive person, and I don’t want anyone saying that someone’s better than I am. And that’s why I had a little edge today, and I always go out there with an edge. ... I just felt like I wanted the edge on him, and I did that today.”
Smith committed two fouls during the first four minutes, while UNC built that early 10-point lead. Then came Smith’s third foul midway through the first half. Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, reacted with so much disgust his outburst cost him a technical foul.
About the same time, a small bird flew across the court, creating a momentary diversion. When things continued, with Smith on the bench the rest of the half, it became no less like a twilight zone of dysfunction for the Wolfpack.
N.C. State endured its second-worst defeat in school history – second only to a 52-point defeat against UNC in 1921, at the venerable Bynum Gymnasium on UNC’s campus. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, made history of their own by going back to their recent past.
“Maui was really kind of the last time that we had that fire in us,” said Jackson, who led UNC with 21 points.
It continued to burn throughout on Sunday.
The Tar Heels played with a sense of relentlessness, and they didn’t settle when they led by 20 points or even 30 or 40. Defensively, UNC maintained its pressure and forced 26 turnovers. The Tar Heels turned those into a season-high 37 points, and afterward Williams and his players said their rout began there, with defense.
UNC’s dominance had roots elsewhere, too. It had roots in the return of Theo Pinson, the junior who had five rebounds and five assists in his first game back from a broken foot. It had roots in Berry’s personal motivation against Smith, and in Williams’ personal disdain for the Wolfpack, an animosity that has lingered for decades.
UNC is now 26-3 against N.C. State since Williams became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 2003. Years ago, Berry said he was well-versed in the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry. Since arriving at UNC, Berry had become acquainted with another.
“Once I got here I realized how a lot of people don’t really like N.C. State,” he said. “And to tell you the truth, I think it’s more of a hatred for N.C. State than it is for Duke, in my opinion.”
This, then, was a performance especially easy to love for the Tar Heels, who according to the final margin of victory were never more dominant in any ACC game, ever, than they were on Sunday against their bitter old rival.