UNC took a punch from NC State then delivered blow after blow over a 27 minute period to move to 12-3 in ACC play and 23-5 overall. Here is what we learned.
Justin Jackson is Mr. February
The question has been asked of Roy Williams and Justin Jackson over and over since the sophomore returned to his late 2015 season form over the past several games. Neither coach nor player can provide an answer for what's different other than the confidence level. Whatever caused the light bulb to some on for Jackson, it has made him the offensive threat UNC needed and the Tar Heels a very dangerous team.
Starting with the game at Boston College where Jackson scored 20 points and hit a pair of threes the sophomore wing forward has been UNC's best perimeter offensive weapon. His streak of double digit scoring games has reached five with 10+ points in six of the lat seven games. In four of the last five games Jackson has hit at least two threes with the exception being the loss to Duke.
In this game, like at Boston College, Jackson's scoring became the fuel for a Tar Heel comeback. With the UNC trailing 27-19, Jackson scored 10 of UNC's next 19 points including a three to cut the Wolfpack lead to three then another triple to put UNC ahead. Jackson capped off a 14-0 run with a layup to give UNC its largest lead of the half at 38-29.
The second half was much quieter for Jackson thanks in part to foul trouble but most of the damage had already been done. In February, Jackson has been on a different level. The question is can he keep doing in March?
UNC took a punch then went to work.
It was basically like this starting at the 25 second mark
With 12:08 left in the first half, NC State had opened up a 23-10 lead. PNC Arena was going nuts, Cat Barber couldn't miss while putting both Joel Berry and Nate Britt on skates. UNC had taken a punch in the mouth and after wiping a little blood off the lip authorized the use of nuclear weapons at NC State's expense.
Over the next 27:18 of game time following Barber's jumper to stake a 13 point Wolfpack lead, UNC outscored NC State 66-34. UNC went from down 13 just before the second media timeout of the first half to up 19 with just under five minutes left in the game. It really doesn't get more impressive than that or more impressive than what UNC has done in three of the last four games.
There is some truth to the idea NC State came out "wanting it more" than UNC but that doesn't necessarily mean the Tar Heels didn't want it less than they should have. This game was basically it for the Wolfpack. An NCAA Tournament bid is out barring a miracle ACC Tournament run. An NIT bid is also unlikely, especially if the Pack end up with a losing record. For the first eight minutes, NC State played like this was the most important game of the season because it was. After that initial storm passed the Tar Heels exerted control and in the second half methodically took the Wolfpack apart on both ends of the floor.
UNC looked the part of contender again. More and more the loss to Duke looks like a fluke poor shooting night at an inopportune time.
UNC's defense continues to improve
Don't look now but UNC's defensive efficiency has risen to 31st nationally. More than that, UNC continues to show signs of playing great team defense. While the first eight minutes didn't bode well for the Tar Heels on the defensive end, it wasn't for lack of effort on the defense. Marcus Paige noted that Cat Barber was being forced into contested shots off the dribble. NC State wasn't scoring off massive breakdowns in defense but rather depending on one player to work incredibly hard to get open shots. For eight minutes those shots were falling but Paige said they didn't expect it to happen all game.
That turned out to be the case. UNC ran multiple defenders at Barber and the early fouls for Joel Berry and Nate Britt actually turned out to be a positive. Theo Pinson entered the game and along with Marcus Paige, was able to cool Barber off. After 16 points in eight minutes, Barber had just two over the final twelve of the half. Without any other viable offensive options and the Wolfpack deciding to slow the tempo down instead of attack, the points became scarce. UNC capitalized with a 14-0 run to seize control of the game.
The only real complaint about the defense was on the backboards. UNC gave up three offensive rebounds on the game's first possession prompting Roy Williams to pull Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson from the game. UNC gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half and was outscored 11-2 in second chance points. NCSU managed seven offensive rebounds in the second half but netted just four points off those for a game ORB% of 39.5. On one hand it was an improvement over UNC giving up an ORB% of 50% in Chapel Hill to the Wolfpack. On the other it shows UNC still needs to do a better job completing the defense possession with the ball in hand.
Outside of that it was a solid defensive effort for a team on the right trajectory at the right time of the season.