Luke DeCock

DeCock: Heels take care of business as Pack struggles under bright lights again

UNC coach Roy Williams huddles with Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo during the second half against N.C. State.
UNC coach Roy Williams huddles with Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo during the second half against N.C. State.

Inevitably, as North Carolina put the finishes on its 11th consecutive home win over N.C. State on Saturday, the students started chanting “Not our rival.” And just as inevitably, Roy Williams – who takes the rivalry as seriously as anyone – turned to the students and motioned for them to quiet down.

Last week, when the students chanted “You can’t win here,” at the end of North Carolina’s 57th straight home win over Clemson, Williams glanced briefly at them, then turned away. He has often silenced that cheer in the past. He let them have their fun that time, perhaps because he knew as well as anyone how badly his team needed that win.

Losing that streak, the perfect record against the Tigers in Chapel Hill, would have crippled a team desperately trying to rebuild its confidence. Saturday, though, as the Tar Heels romped against the Wolfpack, things were back to normal at the Smith Center.

It’s as good an indicator as any of how much has changed for the Tar Heels in a week, going from 1-3 in the ACC and sinking to 4-4 and rising. They took care of business against Clemson, survived a freakish journey into Atlanta’s blizzard gridlock to win at Georgia Tech and put away N.C. State in less than nine minutes, taking a 20-6 lead and cruising to an 84-70 win.

“I told them this week, I think we’re really close to becoming a good basketball team,” Williams said. “But we’ve got to take some more steps and got to maintain that intensity level for a longer period of time.”

As for the Wolfpack, which came into the game on a three-game winning streak, it was another poor performance in another big road game. Two weeks ago, N.C. State fell apart at Duke in a 95-60 loss. Given a second chance to make a statement on the road against a local rival, the Wolfpack fizzled again.

You can’t win a game in the first nine minutes, but you can certainly lose it. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried used the word “dazed” to describe his team. Twice.

“We couldn’t throw a rock into the ocean,” N.C. State guard Desmond Lee said.

With six of the nine players in the Wolfpack rotation making their first visits to Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Smith Center, State again wilted under the bright lights. Cat Barber went 3-for-11 from the floor in the first half, his inaccuracy less jarring than the fact he took more shots than T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer – although, as Gottfried pointed out in Barber’s defense, no one else seemed to want the ball.

N.C. State didn’t find a groove until the second half, when it went to the smaller lineup that worked so well in Wednesday’s win over Florida State. By then, it was too late.

“Just a couple nights ago, we played against a really good Florida State team, moving without the ball, their pressure doesn’t bother us,” Gottfried said. “Here we are a couple days later, now we just seem to stand around.”

The Tar Heels, conversely, appear to have found their stride, not waiting in vain for P.J. Hairston to come back, instead feeding the ball to James Michael McAdoo, who bullied his way to the free-throw line 14 times (and made eight, an improvement).

“Our goals aren’t to be a middle-of-the-pack ACC team,” North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige said. “I think we have enough time and enough games to make a run to try to chase some of the teams up at the top and get back into contention.”

Just as N.C. State goes back to the drawing board, with a week off before a trip to Miami, North Carolina keeps moving forward, meeting expectations, getting back to normal.