“Big-time basketball” made another stop in Chapel Hill Saturday, and though it isn’t always this way the shaking Smith Center gave nothing up to crazy Cameron, maniacal Maryland and the Wild West venues of the Big 12 that Roy Williams occasionally pines for.
From the moment you saw far more fetching fingers in the air than tickets for sale in the afternoon mist outside, you knew this was going to be some scene inside. If only the game would live up to the hype between these old foes that seem to have a hoops rivalry again after years of domination by UNC, which came in with a 9-0 home record against N.C. State in the Williams era and won 13 of the last 14, 19 of the last 21 and 36 of the last 45 games against the revived Wolfpack.
Far from the half-empty upper decks that drive Williams nuts for lesser games, this resembled Duke’s annual visit in that the seats were filled to the top rows of the biggest on-campus basketball arena in the country. With every tough ticket being had, this crowd was ready to go long before the 4 p.m. tip.
And, as well as the atmosphere, the game between more bitter enemies than respectful foes did not disappoint. For more than two hours on a second straight bad-weather Saturday on the Hill, Carolina was the School of Rock. Even more so than last week’s great win over Virginia, the old girl with the Teflon top that is now 27 years young never shut up.
Sure, it helped that the opponent wore the red-trimmed black unies of a State College that has continually inserted itself into the recent troubles at UNC by hacking into websites, making the message boards buzz with obnoxious opinions and absurd accusations and playing freelance researchers for the local newspaper.
So the early video of Gio Bernard’s touché touchdown return that stunned State last October did not seem like just another football promo to launch 2013 ticket sales. It was far more an up-yours reminder, much like Duke kept showing the Austin Rivers’ dagger for weeks after it cut out Carolina’s heart last season.
The Smith Center itself is having a welcome metamorphosis. Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham found $800,000 to install the electronic ribbon board all the way around the upper deck fascia, where the graphics are pretty cool if not the most creative. And PA announcer Tony Gilliam has finally given UNC that deep, dramatic voice of intonation during introductions and scoring calls that has long been needed and really revs the crowd.
There is no question that, with one lineup change, Williams has made this a much more lovable Tar Heel team. It’s no coincidence that catalyst P.J. Hairston gets the loudest roar during starting lineups, and the fans are both hyped and hopeful that the four-guard alignment so contradictory to Carolina basketball will still produce the expected result come March.
After all, here is a double-post program that did not shoot a free throw for the first 30 minutes and four seconds of the game but had opportunities, albeit missed, to blow State out in both halves of what turned out to be a taught, tense, back-and-forth game. Williams has disdained trying to pound the ball inside to big guys who cannot score from the blocks consistently in favor of a West Coast style of offense that spreads the field, er, the floor.
Alignments aside, ol’ Roy’s young pups are definitely getting better and with three straight victories find themselves one from the magical 20 mark and i n third place (9-5) of the ACC race. This so-called quality win, 76-65, will go a long way toward assuring another NCAA tournament berth for the Tar Heels. Running the table would leave them 13-5 and with a possible top four seed.
They are still not beyond silly mistakes that stop runs and send Williams into sideline gyrations. But the plays they do make are both gutty and great-looking. Like tipping out missed free throws, a lost art with most teams invented by Dean Smith that provide precious extra possessions. And the sneaky overplaying defense that resulted in consecutive steals and snowbirds that opened up a seven-point lead in the first half.
When Carolina widened a six-point advantage to 10 with the first four points of the second half — but missed a chance to make it 16 by blowing two chippies and throwing it away with numbers on the break — Williams unnerved the crowd by using it as a teaching moment. Though he is essentially down to a six-man rotation, he answered the careless stretch by a bizarre bench-clearing with so little firepower that State astutely went to a zone and dared Carolina to shoot.
Marcus Paige, the only starter left on the court who had a stellar day with 8 assists and no turnovers after playing like a true freshman in the first game in Raleigh, answered with one of his two three-pointers. But before Williams could get the regulars back in the game the lead had become a four-point deficit to the extremely talented Wolfpack. The main men had gotten the message, though.
They regained the lead for good on Paige’s second three-pointer and took control of the game with the help of their first trips to the foul line and more big baskets by Paige and Reggie Bullock, who continues his vastly underrated season and looks more like a potential pro every game. The 6-7 Bullock’s 13 rebounds and 3 assists to go with his 5 three’s and 22 points made him the player of this game.
Sir Reginald had eight points in the 18-4 run that settled it, a stretch during which State and particularly C.J. or Calvin or Fester Lester (6 points, 4 rebounds in 30 minutes, for which Hairston’s defense has to get much of the credit) played like a true pack of dogs. Their real star, senior center Richard Howell, and freshman T.J. Warren combined for 23 points and 27 rebounds, and sharpshooter Scott Wood had drained both wide-open and contested treys, but State basically threw in the towel by not pressuring or fouling when the outcome was still in doubt.
By now, the home crowd was roaring its approval for the team with more heart than height and an alternative style of play that would make a retired coach and mathematician proud.
It was also time for the way-cool video that begins with former UNC stars ticking off the number of ACC titles, Final Fours, national championships, etc., and ends with them repeating “THIS. . . , THIS . . ., THIS . . .” and Smith himself completing the phrase:
“THIS is Carolina Basketball.”
On a beautiful, if not sunny, Beat-State Saturday, it certainly was.