RALEIGH — N.C. State wasn’t the toughest opponent North Carolina has faced this season. But re-creating coach Roy Williams’ winning formula of tough defense and aggressive offense after a three-game losing streak might have ended up being the Tar Heels’ steepest challenge.
UNC (13-7, 2-3 ACC) put the pieces back together to earn its first true road win of the season Tuesday night. The 77-63 victory was far from perfect — in both halves, there were long stretches where neither side could find the basket — but it had all the classic elements of Williams’ coaching style.
A quicker offense led by the guards helped UNC outscore N.C. State 19-7 on the fast break. A stronger post presence helped the Tar Heels double their opponent’s free throw opportunities. And a return to physical defense held the Wolfpack (13-8, 2-5) to just 29 percent shooting in the second half.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” senior forward Deon Thompson said. “We just had to win this game.”
Much of the early offense ran through Thompson. Two runs, 7-0 and 9-0, helped the Tar Heels gain an edge early, and they entered halftime with a lead for the first time in five games.
But at the start of the second half, N.C. State gained the lead on a pair of free throws by Javier Gonzalez — and for a moment it looked like the Tar Heels were beginning to unravel again.
Sophomore guard Larry Drew II threw the ball into the stands on the next possession, and Gonzalez continued his one-man run with an open trey from the corner and a tip-in to make the score 38-43.
That turned out to be Drew’s only turnover of the game. The sophomore was determined this time not to let the same mistakes happen again.
“When we stepped out on the court, we said, ‘This is either when we’re gonna grow as a team and fight back, or where we’re gonna fold,’” Drew said.
From there, the Tar Heels took off on a dominating 28-6 run that put the Wolfpack firmly behind them. Drew (18 points and seven assists) and Dexter Strickland (14 points on 6-of-7 shooting) struck quickly in the lane and handled the ball efficiently.
But UNC also kept N.C. State on the ropes on the other end, showing the kind of lasting defensive resolve that had been lacking in the losing streak.
It helped that sophomore forward Ed Davis was back from an ankle injury, but contributions came from all around during the run. Thompson and freshman John Henson had blocks, senior Marcus Ginyard drew a charge deep in the paint, and all the Tar Heels were moving their feet quicker than they had all game.
The only open looks the Wolfpack could manage were when they kicked it out from a double-team to the 3-point line, as they were held to just 29 percent shooting in the second half.
It was the kind of dominating, game-breaking run — on both offense and defense — that UNC had been lacking.
“You hope it’s a big boost,” Williams said. “The whole season is a journey. Each and every day you’ve got an opportunity to learn something.”
The Tar Heels, who came into the game averaging a league-high 17.5 giveaways in conference play, were also able to keep their turnover demons in check. They had only three in the first half and finished with 10.
With games against conference-leading Virginia and Maryland just around the corner, the Tar Heels will have to keep stay keep Williams’ formula intact — something Thompson was quick to point out.
“Don’t settle for this,” Thompson said. “This is just the beginning, hopefully.”
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