This has been a similar story for UNC this season on the road. It happened at Indiana. It happened at Texas. You can even throw the Butler game into the mix. While facing a team that enjoys certain advantages, UNC wilts under the first half rush and falls into a hole it simply cannot climb out of. Not that the Heels didn't try. With 13:17 left in the game it was 61-33 in favor of the Wolfpack. From that point UNC outscored NCSU 50-30 which may have more to do with Pack's penchant for taking their foot off the gas. Still, the fight is good to see even if it is too little, too late in most cases.
For the most part, this game was a total disaster as none of the UNC regulars played particularly well. Marcus Paige had probably his worst game at UNC. Reggie Bullock could not get on track. James Michael McAdoo got saddled with two fouls in the first two minutes and sat much of the first half. There were countless airballs and missed layups which gave the appearance UNC was intimidated. NC State, normally atrocious on defense, found a way to play solidly on that end until the late game UNC surge. On offense, the Wolfpack did what they wanted which isn't a total surprise. This was a bad match-up for UNC. It is also a game between a top ten offense and the 49th ranked defense with the superior offense being at home. The Tar Heels didn't have an answer for Lorenzo Brown and lacks the post presence to contain either C.J. Leslie or Richard Howell. All three hurt UNC repeatedly as did UNC being on the business end of an efficient fast break, which is a rarity. What NC State ultimately did on offense was not really a shock given the weapons they have.
As bad as the UNC starters were for most of the game, the bench was solid. J.P. Tokoto scored ten points. Joel James, Jackson Simmons and Brice Johnson each had six points. James and Simmons both played well during limited stints on the court. Then there was P.J. Hairston who scored 19 points in 17 minutes. He spent a good chunk of the second half on the bench for what can best be described as a teachable moment from Roy Williams. When he did come back in, he was a huge part of the run that made the PNC Arena crowd very, very nervous. In fact Williams did a lot of this during the game to the point Luke Davis played a significant stretch while Paige sat after he had gone 0-8. There were a lot of odd lineups which was part trying to find something that would work and part coaching by Williams to drive some lessons home. After all the season and program are bigger than one game, even if it is NC State.
Had UNC won this game, it would have been off to the races with the feeling the Heels had turned the corner and were going to go on a 2006-type roll. Had UNC lost in a game that was competitive start to finish, it would have been just a bump in the road but the feeling the team was still progressing would have persisted. UNC lost this game the same way it lost to Butler and Texas with a deer-in-the-headlights look first half followed by a furious but ultimately futile rally. It was a road game against a rival who was due for a big win. It was a game against a team with better talent and at a much more advanced stage of development as a team.
Of course Roy Williams would say, those are excuses. At some point, this team needs to be able to weather the storm in a game of this kind and not fall in a huge hole. And yes, that falls squarely on the veterans first and foremost. While I doubt this game wipes out the progress seen over the past couple of weeks however it does serve as a reality check. UNC is flawed but not a total loss. The 57 points in the second half are proof that this team is plenty capable. In fact these Tar Heels have shown many times this season, they can bring it for a half just not the whole game. Figuring out the whole game thing would go a long ways toward some sustained success.