RALEIGH, N.C. -- Beating North Carolina, NC State coach Mark Gottfried knows, doesn’t guarantee his team anything. It could still win big. Lose late. The Wolfpack already have done both; and anything in this long, strange ACC season can still happen.
"But for tonight, this one night, it does give us a step in the right direction," the second-year Wolfpack coach said after his 18th-ranked team topped the Tar Heels, 91-83.
For all of State’s accomplishments this season -- a top-10 preseason ranking, a 10-game winning streak, an upset over No. 1 Duke -- there’s something extra significant to this particular victory.
Since the late 1980s or so, NC State has served as an oft-forgotten stepbrother to Duke and UNC in the Triangle, an "other guy" status that made Wolfpack fans seethe but foes simply shrug.
But by beating the Tar Heels for the first time since 2007 (snapping a 13-game losing streak), and topping both of their Tobacco Road rivals for the first time since 2002-03, the Pack not only tossed another monkey off their back, but perhaps their hat back into the ring.
"We feel like this is a chance to make history right now, a step forward," said senior Richard Howell, who had never beaten the Tar Heels until Saturday. “It’s been one-sided a lot between Duke and UNC and NC State, and now we’re part of the change.”
After a midweek loss at Wake Forest led to a clear-the-air Wolfpack team meeting, there was a mingled sense of revelry and relief at PNC Arena after the victory.
State -- with its balanced offense and exuberant crowd -- dominated from the outset, using its bigger frontcourt of Howell and C.J. Leslie to get UNC forward James Michael McAdoo into foul trouble early (two in the first two minutes) and its junior point guard, Lorenzo Brown, to discombobulate Tar Heels freshman Marcus Paige often.
Playing what Gottfried called "our most fundamentally sound defense of the season" in the first 20 minutes, State outscored UNC 20-0 on fast-break points by halftime (thus beating the Tar Heels at their own usual game), and it led by as many as 28 points with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left -- because it refused to stop pushing.
"Our message at halftime was: We did not want our players to become passive," Gottfried said. "We wanted to attack them, and run and run and run."
But the Tar Heels, who had won three straight after starting the ACC season 0-2, finally chipped back with a barrage of outside shots. Sophomore P.J. Hairston’s 3-pointer, followed by McAdoo’s follow dunk, cut State’s lead to as little as 85-80 with 28 seconds left.
But senior guard Scott Wood -- yet another player in the Wolfpack’s arsenal -- made two free throws to push the cushion back to seven points.
It wasn’t easy down the stretch. But it was a win.
"It was a butt-kicking is what it was," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team is still trying to find an identity after losing four of last season's starters to the NBA draft.
"I’m not big into moral victories," he added, referring to his team’s rally. " ... NC State was more prepared, had a greater since of urgency, worked harder."
Indeed, in the end, the Wolfpack dominated almost every category of the game: points in the paint (44-34), fast-break points (39-19), rebounding (36-29), assists (22-21), shooting (49.2 percent)
Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19 points, but three Wolfpack players finished with double-doubles: Howell (16 points, 14 rebounds), Leslie (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Brown (20 points, 11 assists). Freshman T.J. Warren also chipped in 19 points, and Wood finished with 12.
Asked about the next step in his team’s progression, Howell said it was to keep improving its defense, win more ACC games than last year.
Added Wood: "We have to keep moving on, and when you get them down 28, you try to get them down 48. We’ve just got to continue to get better; we can't be satisfied."
That is, after enjoying this win. For a night, at least. Finally.
After all, it has been a long time coming.
"I don’t know about its cultural significance, but I just know that our program has lost a lot of games to North Carolina," Gottfried said. "And they’ve been great, 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."