SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL -- You have to hand it to North Carolina. The Tar Heels make the sorts of mistakes in games that should cost them a chance to win, but they enter late February with a sterling 24-2 record and a 10-2 mark within the ACC.
On Wednesday night, Carolina allowed N.C. State to shoot 54 percent from the field and a stunning 55 percent (11-20) on three-pointers yet still managed to win comfortably 89-80 in a game that was less competitive than the final margin indicates.
The Tar Heels countered the Wolfpack's offense barrage with 55 percent shooting of their own, and they also outrebounded the Pack and committed fewer turnovers.
In potentially great news for the Heels, Tyler Hansbrough appears to be gaining his form from last season. Hampered by various injuries to begin the year, he now looks more explosive and is more active on both ends of the court. He scored 27 points against the Pack on 10-for-15 shooting and added seven rebounds and four assists, a new wrinkle in his game that fans and critics alike had tagged as missing.
Wednesday's other star was Ty Lawson, who this month has emerged as a legitimate candidate for ACC Player of the Year. Against the Pack, Lawson tossed in 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting and added nine assists against only one turnover, continuing a season of ball-handling brilliance.
But clearly there were bright spots for the Pack as well. Javi Gonzalez almost single-handedly kept the game close in the first half, going 4-for-4 on three-pointers and hitting a couple directly in Lawson's face.
On the whole, Sidney Lowe's team doesn't have the horses to compete in a fast-paced game against UNC, but State has demonstrated improvement this month.
As for Carolina, this game was more of the same in a season of big offense and inconsistent defense. You have to assume by now that the Heels are what they will be, and what that is very well may be something short of a national champion. At some point in the NCAA Tournament they will encounter a team that can slow them down offensively, and that's when their defense will have to hold in order for them to prevail.
The urgency of the situation hasn't been lost on Roy Williams. As Adam covered for the site already, the venerable coach out of frustration dropped a "fuckin' stinkin'" in the post-game press conference when describing the team's fullcourt double-teaming.
The key here was that he didn't opt for the customary "frickin'" or "flippin'" he frequently employs — and seriously, what's the difference? — and thus the rest of the media on hand at the Smith Center couldn't wait to inject life into a game story that otherwise, quite frankly, lacked great intrigue.
But Williams also was defensive about the criticism of his team.
"Am I happy with our team? Darn right," Williams said. "We started out 0-2 and everybody was abandoning ship and these kids were tough enough to handle the adversity. I'm as proud as I can be with everything except our press."
Lost in the F-bombing aftermath was the return of freshman big man Tyler Zeller. As expected, the wiry 6-11 freshman returned to the court for the first time since November, and he scored two points in eight minutes. There's definitely a question about how much he'll ultimately contribute this season, given how far behind he is in understanding Carolina's schemes.
The Heels travel to Maryland on Saturday afternoon into what should be a very hostile environment, while the Wolfpack will host Virginia.
To see the UNC/NCSU box score, click here.