Wolfpack getting back its culture

RALEIGH, N.C. — David Thompson was at PNC Arena on Saturday night. And for 40 minutes of basketball, North Carolina State put on a display that would make the Wolfpack teams he played on proud.

Generally considered the greatest player in ACC history, Thompson and his run at NCSU included leading the Wolfpack to the 1974 national championship, ending UCLA’s seven-year run as champs.

Another Thompson-led NC State team went unbeaten in 1973, but didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament because it was on probation, and overall NCSU won seven straight over hated rival North Carolina in that period.

Four decades later and before Thompson’s adoring eyes, the Wolfpack put on a show that was worthy of any of the program’s storied stretches, waxing the Tar Heels in such an in-your-face manner that it somewhat exorcized the demons of the last two decades.

NC State ripped Carolina to shreds in every way imaginable, opening up a 28-point lead with 13-plus minutes left in the 91-83 victory. The Wolfpack out-hustled, out-defended, out-thought and outplayed UNC so profoundly that it looked meant to be. What is so remarkable about the demolition is that UNC entered the contest having won 13 straight in the series and was 19-1 against the Pack since Carolina coach Roy Williams returned to his alma mater a decade ago.

So, from a historical standpoint this generally shouldn’t happen. But history is changing, and the difference is that No. 18 NC State is better than Carolina, especially when it plays with passion and a purpose. And the cultural significance of the victory and how NC State went about attaining it is tremendous.

“That’s my point,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “Our program has lost a lot of games to North Carolina, and they’ve been great, you gotta give them credit. They are good and have been good; we’re trying to get good.

“We’re trying to climb up the mountain, and at some point you’ve got to turn it a little bit, and this is a start.”

Senior forward Richard Howell has been through a lot in Raleigh. He played for former coach Sidney Lowe, who helped lead the Wolfpack to the 1983 national title but also struggled in five years as its head coach. Now he’s living the experience of many previous NCSU players. Howell realizes the culture of the program is returning to its long-ago form.

“I’m happy to be around here and a part of the change,” said Howell, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”

NCSU (16-4, 5-2 ACC) beat Duke here two weeks ago and now got Carolina. It is the first time NC State has beaten both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in the same season since 2003. That used to be part of the expectations in the Everett Case, Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano days. It looks like we can toss the Mark Gottfried era into that mix, too, especially because of how the Pack achieved this victory.

Gottfried told his team to constantly attack and anyone caught walking the ball up the floor would be benched. They ran, and in the process ran the Tar Heels out of the building, beating them at the game they’ve cornered the market on for the last half-century. NC State beat UNC at its own game, and that’s where the other prong of cultural significant enters the picture.

NCSU has more talent, and it showed. Gottfried knew and didn’t shy away from establishing that reality so everyone watching could see. C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, T.J. Warren and Howell would make NBA rosters today. Maybe James Michael McAdoo is the only Tar Heel who would. So Gottfried used his greatest asset to his advantage, and it worked.

While Carolina (13-6, 3-3) cut 23 points from a 28-point deficit in a span of 13 minutes, the Heels just didn’t have enough to overcome such a massive hole. And really, it shouldn’t take away from NC State’s utter dominance, which included holding UNC’s starters to nine points in the first half and outrebounding the Tar Heels by 10 on the night.

And if there were any lingering questions about the Wolfpack’s chemistry on and off the court, which became a hot topic here after a team meeting Thursday, it was never a factor.

“We purged it way, way before this game even started, way before it even happened — two days before it happened,” said Brown, who totaled 20 points and 11 assists.

And now the Wolfpack are back on track with a little history in their back pockets with an added twist.

So calculated are these rivalries on Tobacco Road, that the NC State student body apparently made some sort of pact to not rush the court after beating the Tar Heels, unlike the well-documented swarm that followed the win over Duke two weeks ago.

The purpose was to add insult to injury, essentially telling the baby blues they aren’t worthy.

Why not? Anything goes in these rivalry games, especially in the name of gamesmanship, something that was red-clad all night.