While playing a 14-14 team on the road may not seem like a tough game, it's a completely different story when it is a rivalry game. The North Carolina Tar Heels traveled to Raleigh, NC on Wednesday night to play their in-state rival, the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Rivalry may be the wrong word to describe this game, as the Tar Heels have dominated this series recently. Roy Williams is a solid 25-3 against State while at North Carolina. With the Miami Hurricanes beating the Virginia Cavaliers, this was a must-win for North Carolina to keep control of first place in the ACC.
Needless to say, the Heels went to PNC Arena and handled their business. Early on, it was all Wolfpack. About midway through the first half, North Carolina buckled down and used pressuring defense to create better offense. Many were expecting a Marcus Paige offensive breakout, because he loves to play State. Before tonight, Paige was averaging 29 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds during his last two trips to PNC Arena all while shooting 70.5 percent from downtown. But it was definitely not Paige's offense that helped the Tar Heels defeat the Wolfpack 80-68.
Hot Start, Very Cold Finish For Wolfpack
The first minutes of the game were controlled by a hot Wolfpack start. NC State quickly jumped out to a 23-10 lead behind Anthony "Cat" Barber's 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Barber averages 23.1 points per game and is leading the conference in scoring. However, State was held to just 10 points for the rest of the half. North Carolina kept the Wolfpack from scoring for the last 9 minutes of the opening half.
NC State looked to find rhythm as they came out after the break and cut the lead to four points. But, quicker than the first half freeze, they went ice cold again. North Carolina extended the lead to double figures again and never looked back. NC State shot just 37 percent for the game.
The Tar Heels threw multiple defenders and schemes at Cat Barber to keep him contained. It worked. Barber finished with 32 points, but he scored half of those in the first eight minutes of the game. After the hot start, Cat went on to shoot 5-of-17 for the rest of the game. Abdul-Malik Abu (15 points) and Caleb Martin (11 points) were the only other double-digit scorers for the Wolfpack. Also, shooting 6-of-22 from beyond the arc doesn't usually help win games. NC State truly struggled with the long ball.
A Real Team Effort
Okay, so the nation didn't get the Marcus Paige offensive breakout that everyone wanted. But we did get the extremely consistent performances of Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson. Johnson got his league-leading 17th double-double of the season, scoring 22 points and 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, Jackson added in 17 points and 6 rebounds of his own. Marcus Paige (10 points) and Joel Berry II (11 points) helped pace the Heels as well. North Carolina shot 47 percent from the field for the game, including 52 percent in the second half.
The Tar Heels did an outstanding job controlling State's BeeJay Anya, who is known for being a brute in the post. Anya was held to just two points on two shots.
How could you mention the defensive showing without talking about the job Theo Pinson did on Cat Barber? The freak-athlete, Pinson, came off the bench to score seven points and help guard Barber. Barber seemed very frustrated with the bigger, more athletic sophomore on him. As everyone knows, North Carolina thrives off rebounding. Expectedly, they controlled the glass by out-rebounding NC State 43-36.
Basketball is a game of runs, and North Carolina State did not have enough run in them to win this one. This tough road win helps the Tar Heels control first place in the ACC.
North Carolina faces another tough road game as they travel to Virginia on Saturday. Meanwhile, North Carolina State looks to bounce back against Syracuse on Saturday in the Carrier Dome.