UNC takes down No. 1 Michigan State
North Carolina captures an NCAA record 13th win against a No. 1 team
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Capturing a win against a top-five team after suffering a loss to an unranked foe seemed improbable the first time, and it felt even more unlikely the second — especially with the added hurdle of playing in a hostile arena.
And, yet, as time expired in an emptying and deflated Breslin Center, the North Carolina basketball team was celebrating on the sideline after defeating No. 1 Michigan State 79-65. It was the first time the Tar Heels toppled a No. 1 team as an unranked club since 1990.
“It’s amazing,” said forward Brice Johnson, who finished with 14 points. “It’s the best feeling, knowing that you can silence the crowd when they’re so hyped up, knowing you’re the underdog.”
Coach Roy Williams, who now holds a career 7-1 record against Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, talked to reporters after the game, smiling and refraining, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“We’re as happy as we can possibly be,” he said. “We’re 179 degrees away from where we were at the UAB game.”
From forward Joel James’ made free throws 44 seconds into the game, UNC never trailed the Spartans. The team withstood Michigan State (7-1) runs, including a 26-12 run to erase UNC’s 14-point lead in the final nine minutes of the first half.
UNC (5-2) answered with a run of its own in the opening minutes of the second half, breaking the tie 13 seconds in with sophomore guard Marcus Paige’s first 3-pointer of the game. Michigan State quickly tied the game twice more, but with fewer than seven minutes to play, the Tar Heels again held a steady double-digit lead that it didn’t relinquish.
“I knew a run was going to come just because they’re the number one team in the country,” Paige said. “They’re explosive offensively, and they’re great on the boards. They were going to make a run, especially at home. But the way we responded to it is what allowed us to win the game, obviously.”
Five Tar Heels finished in double figures for the second time this year, and UNC held the Spartans to 31 percent from the floor in the second half. The Tar Heels finished with a 49-38 edge on the boards, a far cry from being outrebounded 52-37 against UAB.
The day before the win, Williams told reporters that he couldn’t think of a past team with wilder swings than his current crop of Tar Heels. Wednesday night, Williams was still at a loss.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I know we’ve gotten killed a lot of times, and we’ve beaten the crap out of a lot of people. I’d hate to think it’s been worse than this.”
The Tar Heels broke into smiles in the locker room mid-answer, already reliving the win. They laughed and joked with each other — the mood considerably lighter than following Sunday’s four-point loss to UAB.
“It’s hard to explain,” Paige said. “There are highs and lows so far for us. We beat a top-five team, lose, beat another. It’s crazy. We’re still getting there, we’re learning. This is a big step for us.”