RALEIGH, N.C.—When the N.C. State Wolfpack lose at home, watching the stands at RBC Center feels a bit like watching a bloodstain leave cotton fabric in a spin cycle: Every few minutes, or with each new timeout or stop in play, another chunk of the school colors—deep red T-shirts and sweaters and twisted-balloon hats, or black blazers and North Face jackets—lifts from the cushioned chairs of the arena, disappearing up the concrete stairs. Staring down a loss, N.C. State fans are notorious for their expedient escape, and in its vibrant hue, the exodus always seems more dramatic than it should.
Tuesday night, that stain lifted a bit slower than one might have expected against the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels, college basketball’s defending national champions. Of course, the Tar Heels haven’t had an easy year themselves, having dropped seven games coming into Raleigh tonight, including their last three by a combined 34 points. Ed Davis, the sophomore forward who was second in scoring for UNC coming into the contest, was questionable for action with an ankle injury.
And for a bit, it seemed as if the Wolfpack were going to prevent UNC from landing their first true road victory of the season. N.C. State, who stopped the Duke Blue Devils from earning their first away win just last week, led by five points five minutes into the second half, thanks to a 22-8 run that stretched back into the first half. But the Pack went disastrously cold after that lead stalled at five, making just one field goal during the next 14 minutes of play. When the Pack offense finally began to show signs of life with under four minutes left in the game, it was too late: The 28-9 run had put the Tar Heels up by 14 points, and the seats were emptying with urgency. During an official timeout with 49 seconds left, the stairways suggested diaspora, flooded with a stream of disappointed red, headed back into the encroaching January cold.
The first half, at least, portended an exciting, if not well-executed, game: N.C. State missed six three-point shots in the first 11 minutes, and UNC converted several of those misses into transition baskets. UNC connected on just six of its first 18 jumpers, missing shots both in the paint and beyond the arc. Freshman forward John Henson botched a pair of free throws, even airballing the first. But Deon Thompson, who scored 20 points for the first time since November tonight, converted that missed free throw—and one by Dexter Strickland less than a minute later—into quick second-chance points. State kept it close with streaks, though—first with playmaker Farnold Degand, who hit a three and then connected with Tracy Smith on a no-look pass following a steal, and then with Javier Gonzalez, who followed a three with a steal, a stop-on-a-dime three, and a half-closing jumper that sent the Heels into the locker room with only a four-point lead.
To start the second half, N.C. State reverted to the familiar plan that had worked at the start of their triumphant run versus Duke: Get potent freshman shooter Scott Wood, who had missed his four shots in the first half, involved. And just 10 seconds in, Wood hit his first and only three of the game, advancing the N.C. State run. Javier Gonzalez knocked down another three and crashed the boards following a miss by Dennis Horner, landing a difficult, spectacular put-back in a lane crowded with light blue.
Davis snapped the State spell on the other end, getting an easy basket for the Heels—or so the stands thought. Frustrated by his team’s defensive mishaps, Coach Roy Williams called a timeout before Davis actually took the shot. The timeout wasn’t wasted, as the Tar Heels emerged from the huddle only to shut down the Wolfpack completely. Their tight defense and quick movement versus the small closed State’s lanes. N.C. State’s Smith, who picked up two three quick fouls and spent much of the second half on the bench, didn’t get open looks inside, shooting just four times in the half’s first 15 minutes after scoring 10 points in the first half. UNC’s defense stayed fluid and tough down the stretch, and they controlled the pace and movement of the game. Three-point attempts continued to rim out for the Wolfpack, and N.C. State turnovers and UNC speed continued to combine for easy Tar Heel buckets.
“Against this team, if you turn it over, they’re going to run it right back at you,” N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said. “Tonight, [we] just couldn’t make shots, and unfortunately that happens.”