While everyone expected a dominant performance, UNC ultimately had to grind out a 12 point win after being tied with NC State at halftime. Here is what we learned.
Kennedy Meeks is back
Meeks returned to the start lineup and after a nondescript first half, went to work in the second stanza. Meek scored 18 of his team high 23 points after halftime shooting 8-10 and 3-4 at the free throw line. Foul trouble on the interior for both sides contributed to the Meeks outburst. Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya were saddled with three fouls early in the half making them a little more tentative with their post defense. On the other end foul trouble for Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks means the Tar Heels needed to lean even more on the Charlotte junior. Meeks took advantage of the opportunity and lifted UNC offensively in a game where the Tar Heels got very little from the team's top three scorer.
Meeks also made an impact on the defensive end. Early in the season, Meeks had shown a nose for the ball as well as an ability to disrupt passed into the interior. Meeks did more of that in this game including on three separate occasions diving on the floor after the ball. He was only credit with one steal in those three instances but the effort was there. Despite not being known as much of a shot blocker, Meeks blocked three shots versus NC State and made almost as much of an impact on the defensive end as he did on the offensive side of the floor.
In one afternoon, Meeks illustrated his importance to this team. His productivity is light years ahead of Joel James and can either be a one-two punch with Johnson or compensate when the senior big man is in foul trouble.
UNC is really, really deep
State of the game: UNC's three leading scorers(Johnson, Paige and Jackson) combined for just 15 points and shot 6-24 from the floor.
There are not many teams capable of surviving an absence of production from the three top offensive options on the team but in this case UNC did.
Obviously Kennedy Meeks stepping up carried the Tar Heels, especially in the second half when Johnson sat for foul trouble and neither Paige or Jackson could, as Roy Williams noted, "throw it into the ocean standing on the beach." Paige in particular has endured a two game shooting funk that has seen him hit just two shots in 17 attempts and 1-12 from beyond the arc. Likewise Jackson, who is fairly reliable inside the arc, missed his first six shots. Those attempts came around the basket but simply wouldn't fall. Jackson eventually got on the board then later hit a three to stake a double digit lead for the Tar Heels inside of seven minutes. Johnson was 3-6 for six points but limited thanks to committing silly fouls.
The other part of the equation was Joel Berry. UNC's starting point guard has a knack for hitting big shots in the second half and his two threes on Saturday afternoon were crucial in getting UNC some early breathing room. Hicks continues to produce off the bench with 10 points before his own foul troubles limited him.
When UNC has all cylinders firing, it can be scary good on offense. Even when some of the team's best players struggle, the Tar Heels possess the versatility and enough offensive options to survive an off night.
Welcome to the party, defense
Not to make too much of one game against a middle of the road offensive team but this ended up being a very good outing on the defensive end for the Tar Heels. One reason for that was the Tar Heels effectively kept Wolfpack leading scorer in check for much of the game. Joel Berry and Nate Britt were tasked with guarding Barber and held him to a season low 9 points. Barber's five turnovers matched a season worst and for the first time this season did not attempt a free throw. This was a huge win for the Tar Heel defense considering Barber entered the game averaging 8.7 FTA per game and a free throw rate near 50% In the second half, Barber attempted just three shots and turned the ball over three times while going scoreless as the Tar Heels seized control of the game.
More or less, UNC forced other Wolfpack players to beat the Tar Heels and while there were flashes of offensive production, NC State doesn't have the personnel to survive a bad game from Barber. Both teams took advantage of second chance points. NC State came away with 24-23 edge there. However 18 Wolfpack turnovers resulted in a 17-4 Tar Heel advantage in points off turnovers.
Neither team got much from their best players. UNC's top three scorers struggled and Barber was bottled up by Berry and Britt. That meant the game would be decided by whoever was left and what UNC brought up in depth outclassed NC State's supporting cast in the second half.