There was talk of this game being a trap game. It was UNC’s only matchup in February that isn’t against a ranked team, it was a game that is considered the highlight of the season by the opposing fanbase (and this feeling is far from mutual), and it was a road game in the ACC. Most importantly, NCSU, even with all the trouble they have had this season, does not lack talent, and teams like that can be unpredictable. I’m not going to say people expected a loss, but there was certainly substantial fear.
Those fears were put to rest early, thankfully, as the Heels jumped out to a 27-10 lead largely on the back of their two starting big men, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Hicks proceeded to pick up two fouls in the first four minutes and was a non-factor for most of the rest of the game, but Meeks continued his excellence throughout the game. Luke Maye came in for Hicks, and the Wolfpack (really just Dennis Smith Jr.) closed the lead to six points over the next 11 minutes, culminating with a Maverick Rowan three-pointer.
That capped off a run that left the Wolfpack within striking distance at 37-31, and the fear must have started creeping back into the minds of some Tar Heel fans. After the teams traded baskets a few trips up and down the court, the Heels started getting some stops again, and ended the half on a 10-3 run to put them up 51-37 at the break.
The second half was never really close, as the Heels were just too good offensively (and/or the Wolfpack too bad defensively) to really let their opponents catch up. It didn’t hurt that the defense of Theo Pinson and Nate Britt neutralized Smith Jr. for much of the second half, with his first field goal of the half coming with only three minutes left of play and the outcome of the game all but decided.
After he had scored 17 points in the first half, holding him to 10, nearly all at the free throw line, in the second half was key to not letting NC State get any offensive momentum. The Heels were happy to keep scoring almost at will, shooting over 60% in the second half on their way to a decisive victory.
One of the biggest surprises of the game was the play of Luke Maye. Maye has caught his fair share of flack from UNC fans this season for consistently being one of UNC’s first players off the bench over more athletic and perhaps more talented players, but he has usually been a plus on the floor, and had a career night against NCSU: 13 points, a career high, and seven rebounds. Most notably, he looked more like a UNC big man than he has before in his career.
Most of his points this season have seemingly been on what we’ll call “guard shots;” that is, jump shots and 6-8 foot floaters. Against the Pack, he caught alley-oops, banged around down low, and had a memorable pump fake on the perimeter that led to a dunk. His ability to play like a power forward against a front court-deficient team was key to UNC’s ability to dominate their opponent.
Besides Maye, many Heels had a plus night against NCSU. Theo Pinson had 12 points on 6-8 shooting to go with four assists, Joel Berry had 18 points, six assists, two steals, and just one turnover, the aforementioned Meeks had 17 points and 8 rebounds, and Tony Bradley had eight points (6 in the first half), five rebounds, and, most notably, was a perfect 4-4 from the line. For a team that had quietly been struggling from behind the line for several games before the disaster against Duke, to see one of its worst free throw shooters have that kind of game is a good sign indeed.
On the less positive side of affairs, Justin Jackson struggled to score efficiently but still managed to score 14 points, and Brandon Robinson, thrust into a few more minutes than usual by the loss of Kenny Williams, had a fairly rough six minutes, failing to score, turning the ball over once, committing a personal foul, and generally looking a little unsettled. He also got into a bit of a skirmish with NCSU’s Terry Henderson over a loose ball.
For the opponents, it was essentially the Dennis Smith show. After having been limited in his first matchup against the Tar Heels, Smith put on a show for much of the first half, willing his team to within striking distance. Eventually, though, the combined might of the Heels was too much for one player to overcome. Smith finished with 27 points, six assists, and six turnovers. The next-leading Wolfpack scorer was Maverick Rowan, with 12. Other than Abdul-Malik Abu, who had 10, no other NCSU player scored more than seven. The Pack also turned the ball over 17 times, and only collected 25 rebounds to UNC’s 41.
All things considered, it was a good night against a bad team. UNC will look to continue this level of play when they resume play in Chapel Hill against #14 Virginia.
In the meantime, enjoy: