The Tar Heels FINALLY put an end to their excruciating losing streak by taking down the NC State Wolfpack 85-79. It is their first win in the month of February, and their last win since...NC State in Raleigh. Ouch, Wolfpack. Ouch.
It feels like a rarity these days to see UNC sweep NC State in both basketball and football, and that alone makes it a special one. However, the fact that the Heels completed this sweep from last place in the ACC is something that will likely haunt the city of Raleigh for a long, long time. Let’s go ahead and dive into this game and what this win means for the final stretch of the season.
“NC State Stuff” Lives On
We can argue all day whether or not this rivalry is a rivalry at all for UNC fans, but one thing is extremely clear: this is a very real, heated, hate-fueled rivalry for NC State. It’s for this reason that I can’t fully understand the things that the Pack choose to be when it comes to the Tar Heels and Duke. If you were to ask a fan of a Mountain West team in a blind study which team they thought beat State by six points and which team lost to them by 22, nobody would’ve picked the Heels as the winning team. It doesn’t make sense, which is some peak “NC State Stuff”.
It’s hard to really explain the theory behind why NC State has been weirdly good against Duke but not UNC, but at this point it has to be some kind of weird big brother complex (Roy Williams always wanting to embarrass them aside). There’s not really anything to lose if State goes down against the Blue Devils for some mysterious reason, but the Wolfpack detest losing against the Tar Heels so much that it feels like it gets in their heads in a tragic way. Last night was no exception, as they came out swinging hard for the better part of the first half only to collapse in the second half during a 13-2 run by the Heels. The Pack did their best to do what many teams have done to Carolina this season, but they just couldn’t get the job done, and here we are.
The “NC State Stuff” that runs deep with Carolina is a unique animal that none of us may ever understand. The good thing is we don’t need to, just keep the hits coming.
Surviving the Trap
Near the end of the second half, the Wolfpack did what a number of teams had done before against the Heels with great success: they executed the full-court trap. At this particular point of the game, it would’ve been easy to expect Carolina to crumble into a million pieces trying to get the ball across the timeline. However, Cole Anthony & Co. did a great job of navigating the situation intelligently and keeping the ball from ending up in State’s hands.
Cole Anthony was perhaps the biggest key in this, as he did a good job of keeping the ball out of stealing range and completing passes to players who either could pass someone open, get the ball across themselves, or take the foul. In general this may be the least panicked that I’ve seen this Tar Heel team in the final minutes of a close game in a very long time. How calm were they? Garrison Brooks made 14 of his 16 free throws. This type of poise could go a long way in finishing out the season, and hopefully making a run in the ACC Tournament.
The Definition of Toughness
I’ll be honest: I don’t know how this team keeps getting up off the mat whenever teams punch them in the mouth, both figuratively and literally. To focus on the literal aspect, the Heels took some familiar bumps and bruises last night that made me wonder what it’ll take for this team to make it through a game unscathed. Brandon Robinson came out of halftime with an ankle injury and ended up landing on it wrong in the middle of the second half. Garrison Brooks, who has been repeatedly hit in the eyes, had his goggles knocked clean off his face after a shot to the nose.
It’s easy to say that these guys should be tough and keep playing when things like this happen, but it’s another thing to actually do it. The Heels have shown a level of toughness that probably shouldn’t exist in 21st century college basketball. This team isn’t the early ‘90s Chicago Bulls who had to anticipate the Detroit Pistons trying to knock them out every time they played, but the level of punishment that they’ve taken from the nature of the game as well as from actual players makes you wonder if they may be a distant cousin. As hindering as it’s been to the season as a whole, one can’t help but stand back and appreciate the level of fight that they’ve shown through it all.
Thank God that the Tar Heels were able to pull off a big win, and it’s even better that it was a sweep against that team in Raleigh. Now it’s time to exhale, regroup, and get ready for Syracuse.