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The Daily Tar Heel

Defensive intensity fuels UNC men's basketball in 51-point win over N.C. State

Intensity is what makes Roy Williams’ teams go.

When the North Carolina men's basketball team is forcing turnovers left and right and diving on the floor for loose balls, it empowers and unleashes a potent fast break. Other teams just can't keep up, and eventually they break down under a bevy of UNC layups and silly turnovers.

All the great Williams' teams had the ability to turn up the intensity dial, to break opposing teams. And early on in the season, it looked like this Tar Heel team could be that good.

No. 14 North Carolina (14-3, 2-1 ACC) — which beat N.C. State (12-4, 1-2 ACC) by 51 points on Sunday — blitzed the field in the Maui Invitational, culminating in a 15-point win over Wisconsin on Nov. 23. The spark the team showed in that tournament, especially on defense, was the same spark in last year’s Final Four team and the national championship-winning teams before them.

The Tar Heels had that extra ingredient, that spark, at the beginning of its 2016-17 campaign. But it went dark for a long stretch this season, culminating in a road loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 1.

On Sunday, that intensity was back. N.C. State was not ready for UNC’s mix of speed and aggression, losing 107-56.

“When we bring the energy, and bring the passion, it’s hard to stop us,” junior guard Joel Berry said.

The North Carolina offense fed off the defense's energy. The Wolfpack turned the ball over 26 times, and the Tar Heels scored 41 points off those turnovers. All the while, the lead just kept getting bigger.

“Honestly, I didn’t even pay attention to it until I looked up there and we were up 33 at halftime,” said junior wing Justin Jackson. “And that just shows the type of intensity that we had. And it just kept on growing, kept on growing.”

UNC scored 107 points but only shot 49.4 percent from the field and 12-of-27 from three. The Tar Heels weren’t on a crazy hot streak shooting the ball — they just beat N.C. State defensively and in every intangible.

N.C. State finished the game 23-of-63 from the field and 3-of-11 from the free line. The Wolfpack never once held the lead and lost by 51 points, the largest margin of victory ever for UNC against an ACC opponent.

“We set the tone defensively,” Williams said. “I thought early we were good on the defensive end of the floor, and after the first couple of possessions the ball started going in the basket. And it kept going in there.”

Sunday’s demolition job of the Wolfpack helped North Carolina improve to 2-1 in ACC play. After that initial loss to the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels have weathered a storm against a talented Clemson team on the road and righted their figurative ship in the conference standings.

But perhaps the best sign in the win is the return of that defensive intensity that propelled Williams' teams to success over the years.

The Tar Heels showcased energy in those three straight wins in the Maui Invitational, but they had lost it since then. Sunday, aided by a raucous home crowd and fueled by a rivalry game, the defensive intensity returned.

“It seems like we finally brought it back from Maui,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “That's where it seems like we left it.”

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com

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