The bone bruise in Kennedy Meeks’ left knee seemed to stop bothering him at halftime, maybe because his bruised ego hurt more. Challenged to attack N.C. State’s foul-plagued big men in the second half, Meeks offered yet another demonstration of how North Carolina’s depth remains its greatest asset.
The Tar Heels rumbled along during the three weeks Meeks missed, with Brice Johnson seemingly provoked to new heights of greatness by his absence, but North Carolina wouldn’t have won without Meeks on Saturday. The Tar Heels held off N.C. State for a 67-55 win on an afternoon when the Tar Heels’ stars struggled and Meeks and the lengthy North Carolina bench made the difference.
“That’s the team we are,” Meeks said.
At his best in the second half, showing the explosiveness around the rim he lacked since his return to action at Syracuse last Saturday after three weeks away, Meeks not only took advantage of Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya but did so in a way that Johnson, in foul trouble, could not.
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Meeks scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, dove for loose balls and drew a charge with an audacious collapse, as Abu bumped up against Meeks with considerably less force than is presumably required to topple him.
“It was just total effort. You saw it,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I asked him, ‘Did you really dive those three times or did somebody trip you?’ ”
It was an absolutely critical performance on a day North Carolina got almost nothing from its three leading scorers – a total of 15 points and one 3-pointer on 6-of-24 shooting from Johnson, Justin Jackson and perennial State nemesis Marcus Paige – and drew heavily on the rest of its roster, starting with starters Meeks and Joel Berry but extending to Nate Britt and Isiah Hicks and even as far down the bench as Luke Maye.
Britt’s unremarkable three points and four assists belied his impact on offense, especially during one first-half stretch where he essentially kept the Tar Heels in the game, and he combined with Berry to keep Cat Barber out of double digits for the first time this season. Hicks continued to be aggressive on offense and Maye had four rebounds in seven minutes.
Few teams could stomach the struggles of players like Paige or Jackson or Johnson and still win a game as hard-fought as this one. The Tar Heels overcame the ineffectiveness of all three, getting enough from the bottom of their roster to make up for the lack of contribution from the top, and holding off a determined N.C. State team that could match North Carolina for hustle but not for depth. Then again, who can?
“That’s the difference between last year’s team and this year’s team,” Paige said. “We’re dynamic and flexible enough offensively to not sink in a game like that when our best players are struggling.”
The Wolfpack wasn’t within a possession in the final minute, as it had been in its first four ACC losses, but it was within single digits. Given the gulf in talent between the teams, that serves as testament to N.C. State’s effort Saturday – which, unlike in its more winnable ACC games, was consistent throughout.
“We’re sitting there 29-all (at halftime),” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “The second half, probably, their depth wore us down a little bit.”
No one represented that depth more than Meeks, who brought his best on an afternoon where North Carolina’s best were at their worst, and made sure the Tar Heels got away with it.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock