North Carolina did enough on offense to beat N.C. State on Saturday.
It was the defensive end that let the Tar Heels down in a rare home loss to the Wolfpack.
The 95-91 overtime decision was only UNC’s seventh loss in the Smith Center (which opened in 1986) to the Wolfpack.
The Tar Heels (16-6, 5-4 ACC) shot 63 percent (17 of 27) in the second half and had 15 offensive rebounds for the game. Junior forward Luke Maye had a game-high 31 points and senior wing Theo Pinson turned in a career game with 22 points and 15 rebounds.
UNC was in control in the final 3 minutes of regulation and could have put the game away but could only get one defensive stop on four crucial possessions.
“We just didn’t really make the plays we needed to make,” Maye said.
Here’s what happened:
▪ Up 77-73 with 3 minutes left, UNC found itself on the wrong end of a big-to-guard defensive switch.
Off a ball screen by N.C. State forward Omer Yurtseven, Maye switched onto N.C. State guard Markell Johnson.
Johnson had missed his first three shots from the 3-point line on Saturday but with Maye giving him space, to prevent dribble penetration, Johnson hit a step-back 3 from the top of the key to cut UNC’s lead to 77-76.
▪ Up 79-76, with 2:20 left, UNC got caught again on a switch that turned into an advantage for the Wolfpack.
Maye was matched up with Johnson on the 3-point line and guard Joel Berry, who is a foot shorter, was trying defend Yurtseven in the post.
Johnson couldn’t get the entry pass to Yurtseven, though, and Pinson came up with the steal for the Tar Heels.
Notable here, UNC got the stop but couldn’t extend its lead. Maye missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession.
▪ Still up 79-76, UNC switched again off of a screen to leave Maye on Johnson on the perimeter and Berry on Yurtseven in the paint.
This time Johnson drove into the lane and Pinson helped off of Torin Dorn. Johnson kicked to Dorn in the left corner and the fourth-year junior drilled the open 3 to tie the game at 79 with 1:30 left in regulation.
That was one of 15 3s NC State had made (on 30 attempts) in the game. While Johnson’s previous 3 might have been unexpected, and a shot UNC could live with, Dorn had already made three 3s and was one of the main reasons N.C. State was still alive in the game.
Helping off of Dorn, to cut off the dribble penetration, is the kind of play that has given UNC problems this season. They help too much and leave shooters, often the wrong ones, open. This is the primary reason the Tar Heels rank No. 315 in the country in 3-point defense.
▪ Up 81-79 with 1:09 left in regulation after a Kenny Williams layup, the Heels still couldn’t find a way to contain Johnson.
The 6-1 guard had the 6-8 Maye on him again after a high screen from Yurtseven, about 30 feet from the basket.
Maye waited near the foul line and steered Johnson toward the help defense. Yurtseven was able to screen off Maye and the help from UNC’s Cam Johnson came too late to contest Markell Johnson’s layup attempt.
Johnson’s basket tied the game at 81 with 58 seconds left.
After Johnson gave N.C. State an 83-81 lead, with 10.9 seconds left on another drive on Maye, UNC’s offense was able to make a play (Pinson drove and took a contested layup but Cam Johnson got the rebound and was fouled) to push the game into overtime.
UNC was playing catch-up in overtime. The Heels never led again after a 3-pointer by Markell Johnson put the Wolfpack in front an 88-85 just 47 seconds into the overtime.
Even UNC’s best defensive play in overtime — when Williams knocked an inbounds pass loose with 6.7 seconds left — ended in the Wolfpack’s favor.
Freshman forward Sterling Manley, who hadn’t been on the floor since the 11:14 mark in the first half, came in to defend the inbounds pass. Manley, with his long reach, bother Dorn’s entry pass and Williams cut off Allerik Freeman’s path to the ball. Williams deflected the pass near the end line and in the corner in front of the UNC bench.
Manley came up with the ball and was surrounded by N.C. State players. He turned, jumped and tried to pass the ball to Maye, who was still a good 5 feet behind the 3-point line.
Johnson stepped in front of the errant pass from Manley for the steal and was fouled with 3 seconds left. He made both free throws to seal the game for the Wolfpack.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio