There was a moment early in the second half on Wednesday when Dennis Smith Jr., the N.C. State freshman point guard who is destined to be a high pick in the NBA draft, tried to post up on Joel Berry, the North Carolina junior.
Smith dribbled and buried his elbow into Berry’s chest. And then it happened again, with Berry standing his ground. Seconds later, with the Tar Heels leading by double digits, well on their way to a 97-73 victory, Berry and Smith exchanged some hostile stares and words.
“I told him, ‘Just don’t post me up,’ ” Berry said later, inside the Tar Heels’ locker room. “Like, I mean, I’m not a guy that’s just going to – I’m not going to back down just because you’re supposed to be a top pick in the draft. I like to compete, and I just told him, ‘Don’t post me up.’ ”
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Smith, who finished with 27 points, didn’t appear to react kindly to the admonishment. Nonetheless, the scene was one of few in which any Wolfpack player showed any kind of will or fight.
For the second time in five weeks, the Tar Heels asserted themselves early against the Wolfpack. And for the second time in five weeks, the Wolfpack folded without much resistance. The story on Wednesday for UNC was that it usually scored at will inside.
Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, sometimes maneuvered around air to score. Luke Maye, the sophomore forward who received some bonus playing time while Isaiah Hicks found himself in foul trouble, finished with 13 points, two more than he’d ever scored in a college game.
Two of those points came on a wide-open dunk after he used a standard pump fake that fooled Wolfpack freshman center Omer Yurtseven. Overall, the Tar Heels outscored the Wolfpack 60-22 in the paint. UNC scored down low on uncontested drives and off of missed shots. It scored when N.C. State managed to play defense, and when it didn’t.
“We thought we would have an advantage inside,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
And that it did. What Williams and his players might not have expected, given the circumstances, was how easily this all seemed to come. Before Wednesday, the Wolfpack had lost five consecutive games. N.C. State appeared under siege. If ever there was a time to show life, and resolve, it was now.
But the Tar Heels needed about six minutes to take a double-digit lead. They closed the first half with a 6-0 run, turning N.C. State’s manageable eight-point deficit into one 14 points wide, and the margin only grew throughout the second half. And then it really became easy.
“I could tell they were frustrated a little bit,” said Berry, who led the Tar Heels with 18 points, 12 of which came on 3-pointers. “Especially, they started talking to us, and they were yelling at each other. And it’s like guys didn’t know where to be, guys were doing their own thing and just didn’t care.
“So I wish their program good luck in whatever they’re doing, but you could just sense that there wasn’t any team chemistry tonight.”
Berry’s 3-pointer with 12 ½ minutes remaining extended his team’s lead to 21. It was at least that wide the rest of the game, while some in the PNC Arena crowd muttered about how N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried should be fired, or about the Wolfpack’s defensive failures, or any number of problems.
Eventually, people just began to leave. At first there were rows of empty seats. Then there were nearly entire sections of empty seats. Meeks, playing at the PNC Arena for the fourth time, pondered the question of whether he’d ever heard this arena so quiet.
“No,” he said. “Not really.”
Williams called for his walk-ons with nearly two minutes left to play. And even that lineup scored with ease. The Tar Heels shot 56 percent, and their 24-point margin of victory was their largest in this building against the Wolfpack.
By the end, the only people left were either there to support UNC or were perhaps too disgusted to move. The place was nearly empty when the final horn sounded, signaling a merciful end.
Theo Pinson, UNC’s junior forward, said it “was a great feeling” – seeing the arena empty with UNC’s victory long assured. Williams, meanwhile, sounded almost apologetic. The Tar Heels defeated N.C. State by 51 points on Jan. 8 in Chapel Hill, and now by 24 in Raleigh.
The combined 75-point margin of victory in those two games was UNC’s second-largest in a season, only behind the 79-point margin during the 1992-93 season. Back then, N.C. State was decimated in the fallout of a scandal. This team, this season, had been expected to compete.
“I feel for them,” Williams said to reporters.
Then again, he said he had a job to do, too. He and the Tar Heels did theirs, dispatching an old rival with ease for the second time in a little more than a month.