Luke DeCock

NC State was favored against North Carolina for a change, but result remains the same

The roar started to fade, weakening from wall of sound to concerned murmuring. N.C. State had arrived bedecked in garlands of praise and expectations – and, in Kevin Keatts’ case, a bright red sportcoat – and with each missed shot and each North Carolina basket the extraordinary excitement that had built up inside PNC Arena faded to frustration.

Eight shots, all misses. By the time Torin Dorn finally got the Wolfpack on the board, it was 12-0. It got late early Tuesday night.

It’s hard to imagine a worse start for N.C. State, and while the Wolfpack was able to cut the deficit to zero – twice, in the second half – Cam Johnson had the answer for the Tar Heels, both times, in a 90-82 win.

North Carolina’s edge in depth and talent were the difference, and when the Tar Heels needed a bucket, they got one. When the Wolfpack needed one, especially in the second half, it had nowhere to turn.

Hustle can only get you so far. You’ve still got to make shots.

The Wolfpack never could fully recover from that early deficit. After all the upsets N.C. State has pulled under Keatts, the hunter has become the hunted. Whether expectations weighed on N.C. State is tough to say, but the Wolfpack started the game the way you’d expect a team that felt that weight to play.

“I think we played with the same chip on our shoulder that we always do,” Dorn said. “The ball just bounced a different way. We start off making a couple of shots and maybe we’re ahead. You just never know.”

What you do know is that North Carolina is going to be ready for this game, six straight now at PNC, and that Luke Maye is going to be tough to stop. Maye had 21 to lead five North Carolina players in double figures and three with double-doubles, an offense that had considerable fluidity in what Roy Williams called a “frenetic” game. To his delight, it was also a vintage UNC rebounding performance in a game that had plenty of misses.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t aspects of UNC’s performance that were worrying as well, from the persistent turnovers – 23 of them! – to Johnson missing the final 12 minutes with a calf cramp to Nassir Little’s disappearance in the second half. With Johnson out, Williams went with Brandon Robinson’s defense and Leaky Black’s ballhandling and left the hypertalented Little on the bench for the final six minutes.

“Just going by the seat of your pants,” Williams said. “I didn’t sit over there and make an outline and figure out what the dickens I was going to do.”

The Little situation is a curious one, now with a total of eight points in two ACC games, because there’s no questioning his ability and yet something seems to be missing. This felt like it might be the kind of stage where he could thrive. For North Carolina to be the team it’s capable of being, it needs Little to be an impact player off the bench. This wasn’t it.

N.C. State was not able to recover from its early struggles Tuesday but the Wolfpack successfully recovered from its first, equally tough loss of the season at Wisconsin and now faces a similar challenge. There are five games between now and Virginia’s visit in three weeks, and no reason the Wolfpack can’t win four of them, if not all five.

“I like where my team’s at,” Keatts said. “I like how we fought. I told our guys, if we clean up some things we have a chance to be a really good basketball team.”

For the moment, North Carolina is clearly the better team but there’s a lot of basketball left. This won’t be the last time N.C. State is favored this season against other really good teams. The Wolfpack better get used to it.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.