Tar Heels see progress in win over rival NC State
FEB 01, 2014 6:18p ET
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina came into the game against in-state rival N.C. State with bigger goals in mind, including keeping its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Of course, N.C. State had -- and still has -- that same goal. But for at least 25 of the 40 minutes on Saturday, two teams that seemed relatively even on paper looked anything but. It took N.C. State (14-8, 4-5 ACC) over six minutes to crack four points, and at the 11:44 mark, the Tar Heels (14-7, 4-4 ACC) led 20-6. It felt familiar in a rivalry where North Carolina has won 11 straight at home against N.C. State, all but two by double-digit margins.
The inexperienced Wolfpack looked their age, freezing up early, taking bad shots, turning the ball over and even missing their free throws. Two of their early turnovers came when no one knew how much time was left on the shot clock and they unknowingly let it expire.
"Getting that lead really was emphasized coming into the game, that we had to hit them in the mouth really quick," junior James Michael McAdoo said. "They're a really good team. They've also won three games in a row. So we definitely wanted to try to take as much confidence away from them as possible."
North Carolina played like a team that is refocused and reinvigorated, but also one that wants to allow its head coach to eat -- Roy Williams said in 2008 that he'd rather beat State than eat. Williams will dine comfortably on Saturday night, basking in the glow of yet another double-digit win over the Wolfpack (84-70).
The players sense Williams' hatred of the Wolfpack, too.
"You guys have no idea," sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said when asked about it, laughing.
It's just hard for them to pinpoint exactly what is so different.
"You can just feel the different level of energy from the coaches. Anytime we play a game (against a team) in the Triangle, they don't even have to say anything. You can just tell by their body language, the way people are walking around in here," Paige said. "It's just a different level of energy and anticipation for this game. The coaches made it clear that they really want to get these wins, and I'm sure the N.C. State coaches are the same way. It makes it more fun that way."
Which is also why, for the 11th straight time, Williams quieted the student section not long into its "Not our rivals!" chant as the clock wound down.
It is more fun this way. For the region, which used to be -- and still arguably is -- a college basketball mecca, as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State sit less than 30 miles apart. The Triangle. Tobacco Road. Whatever you want to call it, with national titles and proud traditions, basketball rules this area. And in spite of the fierce rivalry between Duke and North Carolina, there's no rawness and hatred quite like there is between North Carolina and N.C. State.
"We experience it," senior guard Leslie McDonald, who led the Tar Heels with 20 points, said. "There's been plenty of times where I'm just enjoying my day and you have State fans in social media just go off on you for no reason. You're like, âWhere does that come from?' "You can just see that hatred. They hate us. We hate them. You understand that, and that's in the back of your mind.
"But at the same time, you've got to go out there and play that game and once you get that victory, you have bragging rights for that day. It's not until you go to their place and try to beat them."
Coachspeak dictates that teams take it "one game at a time" and that "every game counts the same." Not quite so for Williams, and he's admitted as much.
"At the end of the day, it's just another game," McAdoo, who had 16 points, said. "I don't think (Williams) necessarily does anything differently on game day, but I definitely think he's a little bit more fired up. That's not to say he's not fired up for any other game."
"He still does his same routine," McDonald added, "but you can just tell he's a little bit fired up because that's the team that he really does not like."
In a bigger picture sense, though, the Tar Heels have now won four of their last five ACC games after starting 0-3 and have gone from averaging 56.3 points per game in their first three to 77.0 in the last five. After being outscored 47-44 in the second half and allowing N.C. State to shoot over 65 percent, the Tar Heels know they're not a finished product. Not even close.
The offense is what it is, and it's not going to get a lot better. UNC didn't -- and likely won't the rest of this season -- hit a lot of 3s. It missed a number of shots around the rim that it could and probably should make, but the Tar Heels dominated on the offensive glass and got to the foul line enough to make up for it.
What Williams wants to see from his team now is a consistent level of energy and toughness. And as the Tar Heels dove for loose balls, swatted shots away and got steals and deflections in the first half, he saw just that.
What does it mean long term? It's hard to say. For right now, it means that UNC is back to winning the games it should at home, and it's showing continuous progress from game to game.
"I really believe we're getting better as a team. I told them that this week, I think we're really close to becoming a good basketball team. We've got to take some more steps and we've got to maintain that intensity level for a longer period of time," Williams said. "But I do think it says a great deal about the character of the kids that we have that they didn't get down when it was 0-3 or 1-4, they didn't start pointing fingers at anybody else, they accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better."