The Tar Heels started the first half with the same energy seen in their opening minutes against Louisville. The defense showed excellent active hands, and the offense was crisp. The ball moved around the perimeter on offense quickly and the Heels fought for rebounds on each end. State cut the Heel's opening lead and the two teams engaged in a back and forth on both ends for much of the rest of the half. The Heels had one of their worst defensive sequences of the season, with State aimlessly throwing the ball at the basket while Carolina could not get a defensive rebound. During these minutes Joel James had a particularly hard time. James picked up two fouls while also blowing a layup and failing to get a single rebound.
The second half of the first half saw the Heels improve on offense but still play a slower game than normal. Isaiah Hicks came in the game and added a nice dose of energy to help catalyze the Carolina offense. Hicks showed his excellent athleticism and strength in finishing around the rim en route to eight first half points. The Heels found their passing and ball movement again for fits and spurts of the last ten minutes of the half. Which nicely sped up the offense to give the Heels a six point halftime lead.
Throughout the first half Roy Williams continued to use Marcus Paige off the ball, playing Nate Britt at the point guard spot. Britt showed flashes of offense but his finishing and decision-making in the paint still leave much to be desired. Britt needs to improve his recognition of when to dump off to a rolling big man or try to finish himself. If he wants to finish more himself, he should work to incorporate a floater into his game so fewer of his shots are blocked. The first half also showed Williams' reliance on J.P. Tokoto when Paige is off the floor. Tokoto has been used as the primary creator and ball-handler when Paige sits, and while he often struggles with this role or settles for long twos, he has been able to sustain the Heels offense when Paige doesn't have the ball.
To start the second half the Heels came out in a press-oriented defense. This defense resulted in two open State threes which each missed although one did give State a put-back layup. The Heels used their defense and continued good ball movement on offense to widen the lead to seven before the first timeout of the half. The Heels defensive effort wavered when Joel James replaced Kennedy Meeks at center. State made a couple layups in the paint when James was on the floor. The Heels' defense continued to be suspect for several minutes even once Meeks returned.
However, Paige continued his hot shooting from three as well as play-making to ensure the Heels never gave up the lead. To start the final ten minutes the Heels converted two transition and ones to stretch their lead to eight. Meeks added a dunk on the next possession to stretch the lead to ten with just more than 9 minutes to go. Isaiah Hicks continued to show off his impact on the team down the stretch. Hicks played active defense and contributed strong finishing in his minutes, showing his value as Brice Johnson's backup. Hicks does need to play a bit more under control, he committed an offensive foul which sent him to the bench. Johnson immediately made his impact felt upon his replacement of Hicks, drawing Beejay Anya's 5th foul and disqualifying the shot-blocker from the rest of the contest.
After Anya's dismissal the Wolfpack seemed as if they might rally, aided by one of Brice Johnson's most egregious me-first shots of the season, when he ignored an open Justin Jackson under the basket and instead blew a contested layup. State cut the deficit to 8 before Marcus Paige nailed his 5th three on five attempts on the night to put the Heels up 11.
State continued to get to the line to keep the game close, aided by several defensive calls against Tokoto and a clutch four point play by Ralston Turner. Turner then made another three to cut the Carolina lead to three. Coach Williams showed a unique crunch time lineup featuring: Paige, Britt, Tokoto, Hicks and Meeks. Paige made two free throws in the final minute to put Carolina up 6 before State made it a 2 point game with a made Lacey three. On the ensuing inbounds play Tokoto escaped for a fast break where he was fouled on the dunk attempt. Tokoto went 1-2 at the line to but the Heels up 3 with 7.4 seconds to go.
A smart Carolina foul with 3.9 seconds left sent Anthony Barber to the line where he made both shots to cut the Carolina lead to one. Ralston Turner's 5th foul on the inbound sent Nate Britt to the line where he made both shots to put Carolina up 3 with 3.1 seconds left. State's inbounds resulted in a Hicks foul which sent Trevor Lacey to the line where he made two of two despite his best efforts to miss his second shot. Paige then made two shots to push the lead back to three. A call on State's desperation heave gave them two more free throws. they made the first and intentionally missed the second before missing a potential game-tying tip at the buzzer, giving UNC the 2 point win.
This game showed the malleability of Roy Williams' team as well as their ability to withstand adversity. Williams used many different lineups during this game and he showed a renewed faith in Hicks by playing him down the stretch. Brice Johnson's lack of minutes as the game ended could be a worrying sign for the Heels if Johnson checks out in future games because of this lack of faith from Williams. All in all, this game still showed many positives for the Heels. Marcus Paige played by far his best game of the season while also finding his stroke from three for what feels like the first time all season. Both Nate Britt and Hicks played very well in this game and if they continue this they will provide valuable depth as the Heels continue ACC play. The most important thing to track going forward will remain Paige. If he continues this level of play for the rest of the year, then he will earn the All-American team spot he was picked for back in October.