UNC strikes early and often in another quick knockout of State

Just as they did in a historic 51-point blowout last month in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels hit the rival Wolfpack early and often on the way to a 97-73 rout

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
North Carolina Tar Heels forward Theo Pinson (1) scores around North Carolina State Wolfpack forward Abdul-Malik Abu (0) and Wolfpack guard Maverick Rowan (24) in the second half of the college basketball game at PNC Arena in Raleigh

RALEIGH — The NC State basketball team is like a wobbly house of cards these days. All it takes is just one gentle nudge to knock it over. Theo Pinson and his North Carolina teammates were already well aware of that, having put a 51-point hurting on the collapsing Wolfpack in Chapel Hill earlier this season. That’s why they came into Wednesday’s rematch at PNC Arena with a simple strategy. “We just wanted to come out and punch them in the mouth early,” said Pinson, who made his first start of the season in place of an injured Kenny Williams. “Attack or be attacked. That’s the bottom line.”The Tar Heels accomplished what they set out to do by attacking early and often on their way to a 97-73 rout of the listless Wolfpack. Although UNC didn’t get off to as fast a start as it did in the first meeting between the rivals, in which it effectively decided the game by opening up a 26-4 lead after just nine minutes, it was able to do more than enough to take the energy out of the sellout crowd and the incentive out of its beleaguered opponent. This time the margin after nine minutes was 27-10. It was a lead built primarily on the defensive end, where despite the absence of Williams because of a knee injury and starting power forward Isaiah Hicks because of two early fouls, coach Roy Williams’ 10th-ranked team forced five early turnovers and took State out of it rhythm by effectively keeping the ball out of star Dennis Smith Jr.’s hands. “On the defensive end we just made them do what we wanted to do,” point guard Joel Berry said. “It sounds repetitive, but all we wanted to do was get stops and we did a great job of that.” The attacking mentality on defense carried over to the offensive end of the court, where the Tar Heels (22-5, 10-3 ACC) took the ball to the rim at every opportunity and dominated the offensive glass on the way to converting 10 of their first 13 possessions into points. UNC ended up outscoring State 60-22 in the paint and 27-13 on second chance points while the foursome of big men Kennedy Meeks, Luke Maye, Tony Bradley and Hicks — during the seven minutes he was on the floor — combined to torch the Wolfpack for 45 points and 21 rebounds. “Give those guys credit,” State coach Mark Gottfried said after his team’s sixth straight loss. “They did a good job of answering what we wanted to do and played well. They’re a really good basketball team.” Gottfried’s Wolfpack, on the other hand, are anything but a good team right now. Only once Wednesday did State (14-13, 3-11 ACC) appear as though it would give UNC a serious challenge. It came late in the first half when Smith finally got involved and began singlehandedly bringing his team back. The freshman phenom scored 11 straight Wolfpack points during a two-minute stretch in which he helped cut the Tar Heels lead under double figures. State got as close as six on a Maverick Rowan 3-pointer with 4:48 to go in the period. But it managed only two more field goals from that point on. When Joel Berry and Justin Jackson finished off the half with back-to-back 3-pointers, the UNC lead was back up to 51-37 at the break. And the Wolfpack’s spirit was effectively broken.”I could tell they were frustrated a little bit,” Berry said. “They started talking to us and yelling at each other. It’s like guys didn’t know where to be, guys were doing their own thing and just didn’t care.”Though Smith ended up hitting for 27 points, he got little help as the game began to get away and the once festive crowd began to head for the exits.The Tar Heels, meanwhile, shot 60.6 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes and got double figure scoring from five players — including a game-high 18 by Berry, a career-high 13 by Maye and a slashing dozen by Pinson — to finish off a second straight lopsided victory against State and ease at least some of the sting from last week’s disappointing loss against that other rival, Duke. “That game is over with,” said Meeks, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds after being held in check by the Blue Devils. “We definitely have to move past that and be a better as a team. Practice was great this week. We focused on the defensive end and you can see it paid off.”