Tuesday, February 25, 2020: just another win over N.C. State., right?
You know the head-to-head numbers by heart (even though you claim not to). Under Roy Williams, the Tar Heels have 31 — now 32 — victories over their little brother in Raleigh, to just four losses. North Carolina has been felled by the Wolfpack just once in the last 10 tries.
You claim it doesn't matter, but it always has — especially this year, the worst of the Daggum Era. UNC has had N.C. State's number, and despite both team's best efforts, that didn't change on Tuesday night, an 85-79 win for the Tar Heels to complete a season sweep.
The first time, back on Jan. 27, it was done without Cole Anthony and with the help of Garrison Brooks, who — in the midst of his "put the team on my back" stretch — put up 25 points and 11 rebounds in a 75-65 win.
This time, it was Brooks again who proved to be a man amongst boys, swallowing nine rebounds, scoring 30 points and hurting the Wolfpack at the free throw line and with all manner of spins, dips and pivots inside.
"The team had a great deal of confidence that they could get the ball to Garrison," Williams said, "and good things were gonna happen."
It didn't happen immediately. N.C. State scored the first ten points of the game and led for nearly all of the first stanza, with the home team committing nine turnovers and sinking just one of nine 3-point attempts.
But UNC hung around, then took its first lead thanks to a Brooks jumper with 61 seconds til halftime. A Leaky Black steal and buzzer-beating layup gave the Tar Heels a three-point leg up at the break and capped off a 7-0 run. Suddenly, things were good.
Though the lead would be traded on and off, the game from that point on never felt out of the Tar Heels' grip. When the Wolfpack took a 52-45 lead, seven straight UNC points stymied the run. Then came seven more in a little over two minutes from Christian Keeling — "[he] gave us a big lift, to say the least," Williams said — plus a steal and poster dunk from Anthony.
And when a Brooks and-1 put the lead at 11, the cheer from the crowd was one of righteous elation: This is what we expected. This is what this whole season should have felt like.
It was easy Tuesday night to forget that a defeat would have tied the longest losing streak in program history; that UNC is, in all likelihood, about to finish its first sub-.500 season under Williams; that the Tar Heels have suffered through, count 'em, six last-second losses (to Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Duke, Virginia and Notre Dame) in the last two months.
This time, though, there would be no late collapse. Brooks made all eight of his free throw attempts down the stretch, and the Wolfpack never pulled even. UNC's only two victories of the past month have come against N.C. State.
"Winning's fun, winning's fun," guard Andrew Platek said with a smile. "Everybody likes winning."
The Tar Heels haven't had much to play for — besides pride — for a few weeks now. The list of remaining goals looks something like this: put together a miracle run in the ACC Tournament, and beat Duke on March 7. (Not necessarily prioritized in that order.) But staying motivated despite trying times hasn't been a problem for Williams — "If I can't go out there and get myself fired up," he said Monday, "then I'll turn around and walk back in."
Nor was it one for his team Tuesday night. When the final buzzer sounded, Justin Pierce sprinted over to the UNC bench, looking for the nearest high-five. His teammates screamed cries of elation, celebrating the first North Carolina win in nearly a month.
"Words really can't describe when you just let your passion out like that," Brooks said.
It may not be a resume-building win for these Tar Heels, or one that matters in the race for ACC supremacy, but that didn't matter too much. To say they beat the Wolfpack, it seems, was enough.
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