Wolfpack defends home court, damaging UNC’s tournament hopes

The Wolfpack, led by Jarkel Joiner, rallied past the Tar Heels at PNC Arena

NC State guard Jarkel Joiner follows through on a dunk during the Wolfpack’s win over UNC on Sunday in Raleigh. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — No. 23 NC State rallied late to defeat UNC 77-69 Sunday afternoon at PNC Arena, delivering a serious blow to the Tar Heels’ NCAA Tournament hopes.

The rivals were neck and neck throughout the Sunday matinee — until Jarkel Joiner took over. 

The Wolfpack guard scored 20 of his 29 points in the second half, including seven straight after NC State took the lead for good, to put away the Tar Heels.

“Very seldom does that kid call his own number,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts said of Joiner. “I let him play and he called his own number. It was one of those things where he was feeling himself so well. When he pulled up for that 3 by our bench, I was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And then when it went in, of course I was like, ‘Great shot!’

“I don’t know if I could have gotten a better person and player out of the portal.”

After Joiner made an athletic, behind-the-back layup, Ernest Ross blocked UNC guard Caleb Love at the other end to give the Wolfpack possession. When Joiner sunk his 3-pointer, PNC Arena was sent into a frenzy.

“Our fans were tremendous,” Keatts said of the sold-out arena. “The atmosphere was great. That was the first time, for me, that this current group of guys got to see what Wolfpack Nation is all about. … It probably was the loudest I’ve heard it since I’ve been here.”

From there, UNC had no answer. 

“At the end of the day, your big-time players have to step up,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “Some of the shots that [Joiner] took and some of the shots he made, I feel like we had the same if not better shots and ours didn’t go in.”

The win was the perfect bounce back for the Wolfpack after a disappointing loss Tuesday at Syracuse. But for the Tar Heels, it was another opportunity squandered with a big win on the line.

UNC is now 0-8 in Quad 1 games this season and is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament, which would make them the first preseason No. 1 to miss the tournament since expansion.

But Davis doesn’t feel his team is out of it yet.

“After the game, I told the team that I’ve been there before,” Davis said. “Being in the NBA, I’ve been in situations where you feel like your back is against the wall. I told them that there’s a long season ahead of us and that we didn’t play well enough here to win but I was really proud of the effort. We have to continue to stay the course and continue to compete and continue to fight. I’m very hopeful and confident that the things that we’re talking about, the things that we’re working on, it is going to result in something positive in terms of wins, I just do.”

But aside from a deep run in next month’s ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels’ bleak NCAA hopes are dimming.

UNC has lost five of its last six games, has the worst 3-point shooting team in the ACC, and has had several late-game collapses.

Davis, however, reiterated he is not ready to throw in the towel yet.

“What the key is is to understand and continue to get back up and continue to fight,” Davis said. “That’s what Carolina’s always been about, that’s what this team’s always been about. It’s not even a choice. It’s the only way you can go.”

So while the Wolfpack picked up yet another win to add to its resume, what might be even sweeter for the NC State faithful is it might have been the final nail in the coffin for their rivals.

“I don’t put one win over the other,” Keatts said with a smile. “It was a win we needed to have and I’m happy to have it. It’s not a rivalry, right? So why would I care?”