Countdown to First Pitch: Trent Thornton

Over the past two seasons for UNC baseball, Trent Thornton has spent his time clearly establishing himself as the ace of the pitching staff.  With the 2015 opener set for Feb. 13 against Seton Hall, the junior right-hander gives us an inside look into his life both on and off the diamond as we get you prepared for another run at the College World Series with our Countdown to First Pitch preview series.

Coming off a sophomore campaign in which he led all Tar Heel starters in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, Trent has definitely caught the eyes of major league scouts. These accomplishments were enough to earn him 3rd team preseason All-American honors for 2015, along with reliever Reilly Hovis.

This success came after a freshman season in 2013 where he started the year in the bullpen. But Trent ascended the ranks in no time, starting against LSU in the College World Series; a moment he names as the highlight of his career to this point.

(Photo courtesy of News & Observer)

Trent icing his arm during the 2013 College World Series. (News & Observer)

Discussing his pro potential, Trent says “it’s always been a dream to get drafted and make it to the major leagues, but you can’t look too far ahead into the future. You got to focus on what you have today. That’s something I’ve really focused on, is taking it day by day, because you never know what can happen.”

While he wouldn’t commit to any future plans, he did list the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates as two teams he’s always grown up wanting to play for.

Sports is a crazy world where a bad season or a freak injury can change an athlete’s life dramatically.

With this in mind, Thornton, a business major, says that “[he’s] actually thought about this a lot lately,” adding that if something happened where he wasn’t able to play professionally “[he’d] really like to stay in the game of baseball some way, coaching could be an option, but I’d also really like to start my own business.”

Off the field, Trent enjoys spending time with his roommates, and teammates, Korey Dunbar, Alex Raburn, and Taylore Cherry. As for his hobbies, you can include pretty much anything involved with the outdoors, saying “I like to keep pretty busy, I like to stay outside, I like to fish, play ultimate Frisbee, disc golf, and golf. If it’s outside I’m normally doing something there.”

Never a fun sight for opposing hitters. (UNC Athletics)

His personality is one that’s very laid back, but don’t let that fool you. Trent is serious about putting in the work it takes in order to perform at the highest level. This balance has helped Thornton and head coach Mike Fox form a tight bond since the righty’s arrival in Chapel Hill.

“I think Coach Fox is a great coach and I think we have a very good relationship. I like to joke around with him a lot, and I have a pretty good sense of humor I’d say. I like to put a smile on his face any way I can,” Trent says.

It takes a special kind of competitive fire to be the best at what you do, and in the case of UNC’s star pitcher, that’s definitely an accurate assessment.

Asked what pitch he would throw if he was one out away from a perfect game, with a full count, and Derek Jeter (in his prime) at the plate, Trent didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I’d go with the fastball, just try and blow it by him up and in or low and away. It’s a bulldog mentality. I go out there with a chip on my shoulder every day like I have something to prove.”

2014 ended on a sour note for the Tar Heels, falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament behind a pair of losses to Long Beach State – this after previously taking six trips to Omaha for the College World Series since 2006.

Bringing the fastball, pretending Derek Jeter is batting. (UNC Athletics)

Bringing the fastball, pretending Derek Jeter is batting. (UNC Athletics)

Last season was out of character, but it was certainly not an indictment of the talent on this year’s baseball team.  They see no reason not to be optimistic.

“There’s a big difference between last year’s team and this year’s team,” Trent says, “We’ve got a lot of good freshmen that came in this year, and I think we’ve got a lot to prove, but we can definitely compete in, and probably win the ACC. We’re expecting a lot out of this team.”

When it comes to which game he’s most excited about pitching in, it was clear that the local rivalry is still burning strong among players, quickly replying “NC State, absolutely.”

Opening day is right around the corner, folks, and when it gets here, number 31 will be on the mound. Seton Hall better be ready, as the self-described “bulldog” is better than ever, and will be bringing his best stuff.

As a matter of fact, the entire ACC might want to have their players go ahead and start taking notes.

Trent Thornton is coming for them – probably with the fastball high and tight.

UNC Officially Names Gene Chizik D-Coordinator

After weeks of speculation surrounding former Auburn national championship-winning head coach Gene Chizik, the vetting process is now over.

UNC head football coach Larry Fedora announced Monday the latest addition to his coaching staff. Coach Chizik will attempt to resurrect a defense that ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in most statistical categories last season.

***Full statement from UNC***

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – University of North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora announced Monday that Gene Chizik has been hired as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator. Chizik, who won national championships at Auburn and Texas, has long been considered one of the brightest defensive coaches in college football and is an experienced leader who will work with Fedora to achieve excellence on and off the field.

Chizik, 53, served as head coach at Auburn from 2009-12 and led the Tigers to three bowl victories, including the 2011 BCS title game, which followed an undefeated 2010 season. Previously, he was the defensive coordinator at Texas under Mack Brown when the Longhorns captured the 2005 national championship.

Chizik also was Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04 where he built one of the nation’s most dominating defenses. In 2004, he earned the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country when Auburn went 13-0, won the Southeastern Conference and finished No. 2 in both national polls.

Since leaving Auburn in 2012, Chizik has served as an analyst for ESPN, working most recently with the SEC Network. He also worked as a college football analyst with Sirius/XM radio.

“Throughout the hiring process, I worked closely with athletic director Bubba Cunningham to invest in someone who believes in the mission of the University and shares our vision of providing an outstanding experience to the student-athletes,” said Fedora. “Gene Chizik believes in competing at the highest level both on and off the field and is another highly regarded leader for our program.”

“I’m thrilled to join Coach Fedora’s staff and I appreciate the trust he and athletic director Bubba Cunningham have in me,” said Chizik. “It is a tremendous opportunity to coach at one of the most prestigious Universities in the country and live in Chapel Hill. I’m committed to the student-athlete experience they expect at Carolina, and look forward to developing our players into the best they can be in all areas of their lives.”

As head coach at Auburn, Chizik had an Academic Progress Rate (APR) of 970 or above in three of his four seasons, including a 985 in his third year and a 978 in his final season. APR is a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete, each term. The highest score attainable is 1000.

“Academic success is one of the highest priorities for our team and we are committed to bringing in coaches and staff who value and protect our academic integrity,” said Fedora.

Chizik has also been heavily involved in college football reforms. Just this past August, the NCAA invited him to serve on a 12-person committee tasked with examining the recruiting culture in college football and evaluating the current national letter of intent signing dates. The committee was organized in conjunction with the NCAA and reported to the Collegiate Commissioners Association.

Throughout his career, Chizik’s players have earned several national awards, including the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, Lombardi Award and Thorpe Award.

Chizik was head coach at Iowa State from 2007-08. He also coached previously at Clemson, Middle Tennessee State and Central Florida.

Chizik earned his B.A. degree in education from Florida in 1985 and his M.A. in guidance and counseling from Clemson in 1991.

A Clearwater, Fla., native, Chizik and his wife, Jonna, have identical twin daughters, Landry Grace and Kennedy Danielle, and a son, Cally.

Sloppy Tar Heels Clip Overmatched Hokies

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team sped away from Virginia Tech Sunday night in the Smith Center to claim a comfortable 68-53 victory and with it, improve to 14-4 overall and 3-1 in league play.

With the loss, the Hokies dropped to 8-9 overall and 0-4 in the ACC.

***Listen to the story***

Despite two referee corrections and three blood stoppages, Carolina used a balanced offense and an energetic defense to pull away from a struggling Virginia Tech squad.

But the postgame locker room was by no means full of smiles. The Tar Heels continued to struggle from the foul line, but the biggest issue for UNC head coach Roy Williams was the 17 turnovers.

Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson on defense (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson on defense (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams was so disturbed by the sloppiness that he’s now holding a practice Monday night. The Tar Heels were previously scheduled to have the day off.

“J.P. [Tokoto] and Marcus  [Paige] both turned it over  way, way too much today just like the rest of our team did. Seventeen turnovers is not something good,” Coach Williams says.

***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

Freshman Justin Jackson led the UNC scoring charge with 16 points, while junior Adam Smith had a team-high 11-point contribution for the Hokies.

Jackson, who also snagged a season-high seven rebounds, says he’s feeling more and more confident.

“To see the ball go through the net a couple times today, definitely helped a lot. I’m feeling more and more comfortable. That just comes with time, so I’m ready,” Jackson says.

The result of the contest was never really in doubt, but despite an overmatched opponent, the Tar Heels struggled to force the tempo at times and didn’t look sharp for lengthy stretches.

“I want to lay, but we’re not playing nearly as fast as I want them to play. I think we’re playing very average pace, and I’d like us to play faster for sure. But it is a challenge because the other team is very well coached,” Coach Williams says.

***Click here for the full game photo gallery***

On a positive note for UNC, Coach Williams had ample time to work his entire bench into the game, giving guys like Joel James and Jackson Simmons meaningful minutes.

Buzz Williams breathes down the neck of an official (Todd Melet)

Buzz Williams breathes down the neck of an official (Todd Melet)

The Tar Heels jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead just under two minutes into the contest thanks to baskets by Brice Johnson, Jackson and a deep three-pointer by Paige.

Brice Johnson shoots over  a Hokie defender (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson shoots over a Hokie defender (Todd Melet)

But the Hokies started to drain shots of their own and withe 14:12 on thee first half clock, UNC held a slim 12-11 edge.

After a stoppage in play to clean up some profusive bleeding on the court, a couple emphatic slams by Johnson and J.P. Tokoto fired up the crowd and gave UNC a 23-16 advantage with 8:22 to play in the opening half.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams, jacket-less and animated, patrolled the sidelines with a zeal that will be welcome in the ACC for years to come. Not to mention, Coach Williams was sweating up a storm and was luckily, armed with myriad towels.

But the real reason for concern for Coach Williams was his team’s inability to knock down shots, even wide open attempts. Yes, UNC was playing spirited defense at times, but shots were also missed, some badly.

At the intermission, the Tar Heels sported a 34-21 lead thanks in large part to dominance on the boards. UNC held a 27-12 edge in rebounds.

A Tokoto steal and finish on the other end set the tone for the second half as UNC continued to play alert, heads-up defense to stifle the Hokie attack.

Kennedy Meeks jumps up to the basket (Todd Melet)

Kennedy Meeks jumps up to the basket (Todd Melet)

With 15:53 to play, the Tar Heels held a commanding 40-25 advantage.

From there, Johnson made his presence known with back-to-back finishes around the rim that induced a timeout from the Hokies, who then trailed by 17 points and could never mount a serious rally the rest of the way.

Next up for the Tar Heels is a midweek meeting at Joel Coliseum to face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons Wednesday at 7 p.m.


Carolina Welcomes Virginia Tech To Smith Center

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 13-4 overall and 3-1 in the ACC, returns home to the Smith Center to take on struggling Virginia Tech, 8-8 on the season and 0-3 in league play, for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff Sunday.

***Listen to the story***

A 71-70 loss at the hands of the hot-shooting Fighting Irish is the only recent blip on an otherwise stellar stretch for the Tar Heels.

Carolina, fresh off an 81-79 road win at N.C. State, has won seven of its last eight outings and will be heavily favored to emerge victorious again against the lowly Hokies.

But the Tar Heels have thinned out at the point guard position, losing freshman Joel Berry to a strained groin for at least the next two weeks.

Paige and the Tar Heels scarped by N.C. State Wednesday (Todd Melet)

Paige and the Tar Heels scarped by N.C. State Wednesday (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams says Berry’s injury puts a hold on his plans to play three point guards more often.

“My Kansas team played in the Final Four, and we started three point guards all year. That was a comfortable way to play. I had wanted to get to that point, we finally did it, and then Joel gets hurt. The next two to three weeks we’ll be without it,” Coach Williams says.

Junior point guard Marcus Paige got back in rhythm and rediscovered a consistent shooting touch last time out, notching 23 points to go along with nine assists.

But Paige says the Tar Heels must play smarter in the waning minutes of ACC games in order to make life easier on themselves.

“We fouled the guy on the three-point shot in the corner and he makes it. Those are things that lose you basketball games on the road, but we were able to make enough free throws. We responded well enough, but there are a lot of things we can look at in this game [vs. NC State] that don’t tilt in our favor that we can correct,” Paige says.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks provided a spark to his team Wednesday night on the road, finishing with 12 points on 6-7 shooting. What’s more, Hicks seemed to set an aggressive tone with emphatic finishes around the basket.

Coach Williams says Hicks, who has been UNC’s defensive player of the game a team-high six times this season, has tremendous potential and finally got his hard work to pay off with meaningful minutes on the offensive end.

“It’s 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. We do the same drills and the same sprints. I would think that the stars and the moon weren’t aligned properly there for a little while, because he works awfully hard,” Coach Williams says.

Tokoto plays defense (Todd Melet)

Tokoto plays defense (Todd Melet)

Junior forward J.P. Tokoto, meanwhile, leads UNC in both assists and steals with 21.

But Tokoto and company will do well not to underestimate Virginia Tech. Freshman guard Justin Bibbs and redshirt junior Adam Smith can both knock down perimeter shots with laser-like accuracy for the Hokies.

The Tar Heels lead the all-time series with the Hokies 64-13 and sport an 11-3 record since the Hokies joined the ACC prior to the 2004-05 season.

UNC has won nine of its last 10 meetings with Virginia Tech, but barely escaped by a 60-56 margin a year ago in Blacksburg.

Five Reasons Behind Roy’s Hate for State

For Roy Williams, the pain probably started not long after the buzzer sounded last Saturday afternoon.  Marcus Paige had just nailed a gutsy left-handed scoop shot with eight seconds to play to knock off  fourth- ranked Louisville when all of a sudden, in a phenomenon that occurs twice each year, his head coach felt a sharp, burning sensation in his gut.  Roy said nothing after the game, keeping all complaints to himself, but I knew what was wrong.

For the four nights after the big win, I had a hunch that Coach Williams would not be able to eat.

He’s mentioned the condition before. In 2008, after Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels crushed the Wolfpack in Chapel Hill, Roy told the media that he’d “rather not eat than lose to NC State,” and that he informed Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and the rest of his team that “they weren’t eating postgame unless they beat NC State.”

In this year’s first meet-up between the long-time rivals Wednesday night, Marcus Paige gave coach Williams his 23rd victory in 25 tries since taking the job at North Carolina, with a masterful performance – scoring 23 points, dishing out nine assists and also failing to record a single turnover.

For Roy, it must have also felt like Paige fed him a win with an extra side of chili-cheese fries, because you know he was hungry for this one.

Marcus Paige helped his coach's appetite return with his play Wednesday (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige helped his coach’s appetite return with his play Wednesday (Todd Melet)

That’s why I feel safe saying that it was Roy Williams’ stomach that was actually the most relieved Tar Heel inside PNC Arena when State’s freshman forward Cody Martin missed long on his tip-in attempt that would have sent the game to overtime, giving the Heels an 81-79 victory in rival territory.

For the majority of Carolina fans, Duke is seen as UNC’s most hated rival, and the games between the two schools are some of the most intense in all of sports (professional or college). State basketball is often dismissed and treated like the red-headed stepchild, with the main insult being that it’s not even a “true rivalry” anymore due to the Tar Heels’ 31-6 record against the Pack since Dean Smith retired.

Roy Williams isn’t the majority of fans. He has no problem showing that emotion-filled “H-word” for the team in Raleigh. That isn’t a mystery. The mystery is why? When that strong emotional energy could be put towards Coach K’s Durham Empire, what could possibly fuel all this hate for State?

Roy Williams possibly expressing his feelings about NC State to his bench. (Todd Melet)

Roy Williams possibly expressing his feelings about NC State to his bench. (Todd Melet)

I decided it was necessary to bring out my magnifying glass, and go searching for answers. During my quest, I was led to five possible reasons that Roy’s stomach churns at the sight of the color red.

Let’s take a look at the findings of the investigation, which we can call the “Roy-State Report.”

  1. Bullying- There was a time in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that NC State, led by coach Norm Sloan and star David Thompson, actually mattered on the national scene. They won three ACC championships, a national title in 1974, and had a nine game win streak against Carolina. Roy, a member of UNC’s class of ’72, recalled what it was like having friends at State during his college days when he told the media before their game against the Wolfpack in January 2012 that “…. I was a freshman in college and some old high school buddies that I had played baseball and basketball with were over at State and they gave me enough crap for the rest of my life. I didn’t appreciate it and I didn’t like it. So I’ve always had the feeling that this is an important game…”
  2. He Sees the Future- If you missed the game Wednesday or haven’t started watching college basketball yet this season, it’s my job to break the news that NC State is young, talented, athletic, and on the rise. Leading scorer Trevor Lacey is a junior expected to return next year, and guard Ralston Turner is the only senior on the team that plays at least ten minutes per game. The rest of the rotation consists of freshmen and sophomores all expected to make big improvements under head coach Mark Gottfried. They’ve also beaten Duke twice in the past two years. Roy may just want the fans to recognize this and start hating accordingly.

    Coach Mark Gottfried looks to return NC State to its glory days (Todd Melet)

    Coach Mark Gottfried looks to return NC State to its glory days (Todd Melet)

  3. Bricks- The University of North Carolina was the first public university in the United States. This is common knowledge around Chapel Hill. The brick pathways around campus have long been associated with the school, famous among students for their many uneven “potholes” that trip anyone not watching their step. It’s my amateur theory that NC State, during its construction, loved the idea of UNC’s bricks so much that they stole it and extended it to their entire campus, making everything they could out of red and white bricks.  The result was, in my personal opinion, one of the uglier college campuses in America, which could at least explain why Roy would hate going there.
  4. The Kool-Aid Man- No State fan will ever forget that bright red blazer. Former Wolfpack head coach Sidney Lowe finished his career in Raleigh just 1-10 against the Tar Heels but it was the fashion statement he made in the Pack’s February 2007 home victory against UNC that caught the eye of many. It started as a tribute to Jim Valvano, but when NC State scored a huge upset over a heavily favored Carolina team, the jacket took on a life of its own, with Lowe continuing to wear it during his team’s big games. Roy had to have been furious losing to a coach with an outfit that resembled the Kool-Aid man, with the memory strong enough to motivate himself into never losing to Lowe again.
  5.  The Color- Growing up in North Carolina means that for as long as he has been alive, Roy Williams has associated the color red with NC State University. It also means that in a predominantly Christian state, Roy learned that God painted the sky Carolina Blue and that Satan himself was colored red. In coming to UNC, it may have been tough for Roy to be brainwashed into believing that devils are, in fact, Duke blue.


Although it can be easily argued that the “Roy-State Report” findings were somewhat inconclusive, they should at least help to answer why Wanda Williams, Roy’s wife, will most likely only need to cook dinner for one next month during the week of February 24th, when the Wolfpack return to Chapel Hill.

Those pains will be back, and again, it could be up to Marcus Paige to feed his coach.

Notre Dame Trumps UNC, Now 2-2 in ACC

The No. 12 North Carolina women’s basketball team knew the importance of playing No. 7 Notre Dame, especially at home.

It was the Tar Heels’ chance at cementing a spot atop the ACC, and it was a chance to win a statement game that would have sent a signal to the rest of the nation. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, that chance was missed.

In an emotional loss, Carolina fell to the Fighting Irish, 89-79, at home on Thursday, to drop to an even 2-2 mark in the ACC and 15-3 overall. Notre Dame improved to 16-2 and 4-1 in the conference.

With two very skilled teams, Thursday’s contest came down to a matter of toughness. The game included 11 ties and four lead changes, and Notre Dame fought hard to try to kick-start their next attempt at a 30-plus away game streak that was snapped earlier this month in a loss at Miami.

“Well, we’re extremely disappointed. So that’s about all I can say. Turner was tough. I thought we made a good run at them, and got it down to one point, but just didn’t have enough fire power, I guess. I guess that’s why she was the best player coming out last year because she was tough. [Lindsay] Allen was really tough up there, too. We’ll just regroup and move on,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell says.

UNC forward Stephanie Mavunga wasn’t her usual self offensively, finishing with 6 points and 7 rebounds, and with junior forward Xylina McDaniel out indefinitely, Carolina struggled defensively in the paint.

Notre Dame star Brianna Turner had a stat-stuffing night, finishing with career highs in points and rebounds, 29 and 18, and tying her career high in blocks with 7 swats.

Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame’s usual go-to scorer, hasn’t had a night where she scored under ten points in 60 games, but that was cut tonight as she finished with only 8 points in 36 minutes. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw knew Loyd would was knocked off of her game by an illness, but says she was proud of how her team rallied without her.

Carolina’s largest lead came with less than five minutes to play in the first half. The Tar Heels were up eleven points, but three minutes later, the game had already been tied back up by the surging Fighting Irish.

Turner continued to dominate well into the second half, and guard Lindsay Allen made a great contribution to Notre Dame’s offense from the backcourt to finish with a career high 24 points and 9 assists.

UNC went on a run late in the game to close a 14 point deficit. Allisha Gray came alive for the Tar Heels in the second half, scoring 16 points to finish with 20. Just when Carolina came within one point, a string of unfavorable calls for the Tar Heels got Coach Hatchell riled up, and many players in foul trouble.

Jessica Washington and Latifah Coleman each got off a few last second three-point attempts, but none fell, and Notre Dame finished with a victory that left Carolina heartbroken.

Muffet McGraw is now 4-1 all time against Hatchell’s North Carolina team.

But Coach Hatchell vows to make amends soon.

“I thought the effort was good. We had trouble keeping people out there, but I thought we played hard. We just didn’t get it done enough. We’ll keep working. We’ll get them eventually. Trust me, we’ll get them eventually,” Coach Hatchell says.

Up next for the Tar Heels are two away games against Clemson and NC State, before returning to Carmichael in ten days to play rival Duke.


Paige, Hicks Lead Tar Heels To Wild Rivalry Road Win

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team survived N.C. State, 81-79, Wednesday night at PNC Arena to improve to 13-4 on the season and 3-1 in the ACC.

With the loss, the Wolfpack dropped to 12-6 overall and 3-2 in league play.

***Listen to the story***

N.C. State got into foul trouble midway through the second half, and sophomore forward Beejay Anya ultimately fouled out with 6:58 to play. Senior guard Ralston Turner fouled out with just 3 ticks left in the contest.

Meanwhile, UNC took full advantage with crisp passing and sharp shooting to pull away from their rivals and establish a double-digit lead. But the Wolfpack didn’t give up, fighting their way back to within a whisker of victory.

Marcus Paige and Roy Williams continued their dominance over their rivals (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige and Roy Williams continued their dominance over their rivals (Todd Melet)

Junior point guard Marcus Paige, not surprisingly, turned in a sharp performance at a venue he enjoys, finishing with 23 points on 7-13 shooting.

“Honestly, it’s a fun environment,” Paige says. “It’s kind of like an us-against-the-world mentality when we come in here. And that’s a fun way to play.”

UNC head coach Roy Williams was full of praise for Paige’s play following the game.

“I’d like for him to be 6-3, 220, but he’s not that,” Coach Williams says. “What he is is 165 pounds to 175 — and most of it’s heart.”


***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

But it was sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks who surprised most, tallying 12 points and only missing one shot from the field.  Hicks seemed to set the tone with his emphatic play in the paint.

Turner and junior guard Trevor Lacey led the N.C. State scoring charge with 20 and 19 points respectively. The Wolfpack also outrebounded the Tar Heels, 37-33, with scrappy effort and want-to, but it wasn’t enough to emerge victorious on this occasion.

Coach Williams continued his dominance over N.C. State, improving his career head-to-head record to 28-2 against the Wolfpack.

“I didn’t think in the first half we had the movement, the quickness,” N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried says. “We just seemed to be going slow motion in my mind. The second half we came out and played basketball. … But we didn’t do it for 40 minutes. We did it for 20 minutes.”

***Click here for full game photo gallery***

Meeks opened the scoring proceedings with a smooth jumper to get the Tar Heels on the board first in their opening possession.

Meeks slam dunk (Todd Melet)

Meeks slam dunk (Todd Melet)

Abdul-Malik Abu got the Wolfpack’s first points, but it was UNC who got off to a sharp start, spurting out to a 6-2 lead with 16:37 on the first half clock.

But Turner answered for the home team, draining the next two buckets to knot up the game at 8 points apiece.

With 11:40 to play, the Wolfpack earned their first lead of the contest, 13-12, thanks to the hot-shooting of Turner.

UNC used some of its size to draw a second foul on Turner and send the sharp-shooter to the bench briefly. Efficient passing for both teams paced the offenses, and with 7:26 before halftime, N.C. State held a slim 17-16 edge.

Hicks finished the first half with a flourish, converting on every shot he took. The Tar Heels, who made nine of their last 11 attempts from the field, trotted into the locker room with a 32-26 lead.

Both squads came out of halftime on fire, knocking down shots inside and outside with ease, picking apart the opposing defenses.

Promising N.C. State sophomore Kyle Washington made his presence felt and Turner did his part to get the crowd into it early in the final 20 minutes of play. With 15:07 to play, the Tar Heels maintained a 45-38 advantage.

JP Tokoto negotiates the defense of Beejay Anya (Todd Melet)

JP Tokoto negotiates the defense of Beejay Anya (Todd Melet)

Paige continued to work his way into space, converting on crucial long-range jumpers to stave off the Wolfpack surge and keep UNC ahead 52-48 with 11:41 remaining.

In a bad development for N.C. State, Turner picked up his fourth foul at the 10:05 mark in the second half, promptly taking a seat on the bench.

Back-to-back three-point plays from Justin Jackson and J.P Tokoto helped reestablish a solid lead for the Tar Heels at 62-52.

And with 4:35 to play, Paige nailed down a wide open three to extend UNC’s lead to 71-60 and ultimately seal the road win, despite a furious Wolfpack rally that had N.C. State within three points with under a minute to play. PNC Arena was rocking right to the finish.

Next up for the Tar Heels is a Sunday evening meeting with lowly Virginia Tech for a 6:30 p.m. tip in the Smith Center.


No. 15 Tar Heels Face Hungry Wolfpack In Hostile PNC Arena

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 12-4 overall and 2-1 in the ACC, hits the road Wednesday night for a 7 p.m. tipoff in PNC Arena against the N.C. State Wolfpack, 12-5 overall and 3-1 in the ACC.

***Listen to the story***

Coming off an upset over No. 4 Duke Sunday, the Wolfpack will be confident they can make it two in a row, this time against the hated Tar Heels.

The Wolfpack had everything clicking in their 87-75 victory over the Blue Devils last weekend.

The performance merited high praise from UNC head coach Roy Williams.

“I think they handled Duke’s pressure really well. That was about as impressive a show as you’ve seen in quite a while. They had Duke by 19. […] I think they were just on the top of their game,” Coach Williams says.

Roy Williams on the sidelines (Todd Melet)

Roy Williams on the sidelines (Todd Melet)

The Tar Heels should expect another solid outing from the Wolfpack when the two rivals face off in a vital ACC meeting. Both squads find themselves near the top of the league standings and another marquee win for N.C. State would do wonders for its NCAA Tournament resume.

Last season, the two schools authored a classic chapter in their long-standing hardwood rivalry that stands at 150-76 in favor of Carolina.

Former Wolfpack star T.J. Warren went head-to-head down the stretch with UNC junior Marcus Paige before the Tar Heels were able to pull out the thrilling overtime win, 85-84, in Raleigh.

But this season, N.C. State is without Warren and Paige hasn’t been producing at the same level.

Coach Williams says the difference now is the ‘tough little nut’, as he commonly refers to Paige, is being zeroed in on by opposing defenses.

“He’s gotten so much more attention than he did at least the first half of last year. Maybe it was halfway through the season before he started to get all that attention. He’s got all the defensive attention from the first game this year. Perhaps that has something to do with it. He’s been a really good player, but when the other team’s defense is aimed at you, it’s really hard,” Coach Williams says.

Last year, Paige and Warren dueled (Todd Melet)

Last year, Paige and Warren dueled (Todd Melet)

With the pieces seemingly coming together for the men in red, N.C. State’s offense is much more dynamic. And although Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner do most of the heavy lifting, sophomore forward Kyle Washington may be the X-factor.

Coach Gotttfried says Washington’s growth has been integral to the Wolfpack success this season.

“I think you said it right. He has no fear. He’s aggressive offensively. I think he did a great job rebounding the ball. A lot of those rebounds were in traffic – tough rebounds that we needed him to get. We need scoring, and we need scoring from those guys inside. Kyle stepped up and played with a lot of confidence,” Coach Gottfried says.

A healthy Marcus Paige will be key for the Tar Heels’ chances. So how is Paige feeling after a nasty rolled ankle last weekend against Louisville?

He says he’s ready to go and will fight through the pain, if necessary.

“I think yesterday [Monday] and today [Tuesday] are the best it’s felt in the last two weeks. It’s on the upswing. Games usually make it hurt a lot more the next day. We’ll see how it holds up after tomorrow [Wednesday], but going into tomorrow, it feels pretty good,” Paige says.

Although Coach Gottfried recognizes the wealth of talent on the UNC roster, he says his guys will be concentrating most of their attention on Paige.

Marcus Paige on the drive (Nick Vitali)

Marcus Paige on the drive (Nick Vitali)

“I think Paige is a great player. I think North Carolina is a tremendously talented roster from one-ten. They’ve got a lot of really good players. But I do think it starts with Paige. He’s the guy that makes them go. We’ve got to do a great job on him,” Coach Gottfried says.

As usual on the road in the brutal ACC, the Tar Heels will be playing in an unfriendly venue.

Coach Williams says he’ll be using some mind tricks Wednesday night to help his players cope with the hostile environment that awaits them.

“It will be hostile, there’s no question about that. It will be unique, interesting, but hostile will fit too. We haven’t talked about it, but we’ll tell them it’s a great road game, a great opportunity, and we got to pretend they’re yelling for us,” Coach Williams says.

Although it’s Carolina who has dominated the series lately, winning 16 of the last 17 games, the 227th installment in this heated in-state rivalry promises to be compelling entertainment.

Overshadowed Spring Sports Share Same Lofty Goals

All eyes are generally fixed on the basketball hardwood this time of year in Chapel Hill, but a litany of other top-notch UNC sports programs are gearing up for their own chances at ACC and national glory.

***Listen to the story***

The No. 4 UNC women’s tennis team started off its dual match campaign with a pair of victories over in-state foes.

Last weekend, the Tar Heels decisively served past both Elon and Appalachian State, dropping only one match in the process.

The Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center will play host to one of the nation’s top players. Sophomore Jamie Loeb, currently ranked No. 8 in the nation in singles, spent much of her freshman year sitting atop the rankings after a superb 53-4 season individually.

UNC winning ITA Indoor National Title. (UNC Athletics)

UNC winning ITA Indoor National Title. (UNC Athletics)

After falling just short of a national championship in Athens, Georgia a year ago, the Tar Heels, armed with a deep and talented lineup that also includes No. 22 Caroline Price and No. 31 Hayley Carter, could go one better in 2015.

Head coach Brian Kalbas’ Carolina squad will return to action on Jan. 24-25 to face Minnesota and Boston College or LSU.

As for their male counterparts, they’ll be aiming for big things this year as well. The Tar Heel men start off their campaign in the No. 6 position nationally in the preseason rankings released just last week.

UNC returns five starters from last year’s record-breaking team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals. In addition, Carolina also welcomes back senior Esben Hess-Oleson, who sat out last season with an injury, but made significant contributions in previous years.

The Tar Heels return to the courts to open their regular season with home doubleheaders on Jan. 16 and 19.

On the lacrosse field, UNC will yet again be among the nation’s best.

The women’s team begins the year No. 2 in the preseason polls and leads a loaded field in the ACC with five league schools represented in the top seven of the rankings.

With a national championship the goal, it appears the Tar Heels may actually have the talent to do it, with ten UNC women earning spots on the 2015 Face-Off Yearbook preseason All-America team, published by Inside Lacrosse.

UNC Men's Lacrosse claimed the 2013 ACC Championship. (UNC Athletics)

UNC Men’s Lacrosse claimed the 2013 ACC Championship. (UNC Athletics)

As for the men’s lacrosse squad, they check in a few notches lower than the women, but not by much. The Tar Heels were voted as the sixth-best team in the NCAA by the nation’s coaches.

But Carolina will get its chance to prove if it should be placed higher with games against all of the top five-ranked teams looming on its schedule.

Coach Joe Breschi’s team opens its season Feb. 7 at home against Furman.

Although overshadowed by their more famous classmates on the basketball court, at a place like UNC, every sports program seemingly shares the same collective goal – to win a national championship.

Roy Williams, Battling Tar Heels Traversing Tough ACC

In the midst of a brutal ACC schedule, the Tar Heels got the ball to bounce their way on a wild afternoon in the Smith Center. Down 13 points to No. 5 Louisville in the second half, things looked bleak, but UNC head coach Roy Williams says he never doubted his team would rally.

***Listen to the story***

It was only the third ACC game of the season for UNC, but it felt like a must-win situation for the Tar Heels, who could ill-afford to drop a second straight contest at home.

Theo Pinson plays defense vs. Louisville (Todd Melet)

Theo Pinson plays defense vs. Louisville (Todd Melet)

Carolina, now 12-4 overall and 2-1 in the ACC, came out of halftime sluggish and fell behind in a hurry to Rick Pitino’s talented bunch of Cardinals. And with Marcus Paige forced to retreat into the locker room after an ankle injury, things certainly didn’t look good.

But Coach Williams, for one, always knew his team would have a chance in the end.

“We turned it over at least four or five times in the first five minutes of the second half. It didn’t look good at that time. I told the guys I was always confident we were going to come back, you just don’t know if it’s going to be enough. But I was always confident we’d have a chance to win at the end, and we made some baskets,” Coach Williams says.

Down the stretch, it was a complete team effort that pulled out the come-from-behind victory.

But above all, the cleaner version of the Tar Heels showed up when it mattered most, taking care of the ball and cutting out the turnovers that had led to the Louisville scoring run.

“You just feel very fortunate. After my first timeout early in the second half, I think we had one turnover the rest of the way. I think that’s crucial,” Coach Williams says.

Kennedy Meeks hots the floor for a loose ball (Todd Melet)

Kennedy Meeks hots the floor for a loose ball (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams, as always, says he’s proud of the ‘tough little sucker’ Paige, who re-entered the game after getting his ankle taped up and ultimately, made the gutsy game-winning shot for the Tar Heels.

A rousing win over Louisville could do a lot for UNC’s confidence, in particular, the freshmen. But Coach Williams says he’s never sensed any lack of belief in his players.

“Does it give you confidence? I think it does. I don’t think my team has not been confident. We went really small there for a while with three point guards. We were just trying to see something that would work,” Coach Williams says. “Defensively, their penetration and guards were really bothering us. I thought for the most part the big guys did okay guarding the screen on the ball. We went small and it worked. That should give those guys a little more confidence too.”

But the fickle nature of basketball is not lost on Coach Williams. The difference between jubilation and devastation is tiny.

After all, the Cardinals had two good looks at the basket in the waning seconds. But as fate would have it, neither found its mark.

“It would have been a killer if their shot had gone in, there’s no question about that. It would have broken our hearts. You always have a chance to bounce back, too. It was a great, great afternoon for about four seconds there at the end. But I can take that because those four seconds linger a lot longer,” Coach Williams says.

Tar Heel pregame intros (Todd Melet)

Tar Heel pregame intros (Todd Melet)

There’s a fine line between winning and losing, especially in a loaded ACC. Like a broken record, every coach has praised the depth of the league and explained how on any given night, anybody can beat anybody.

And with previously unbeaten and second-ranked Duke going down at N.C. State Sunday afternoon to a wild, celebratory court storming at PNC Arena, perhaps the coach’s mantra is true.

If nothing else, Sunday’s upset victory for the Wolfpack should perk the Tar Heels’ interest for Wednesday’s trip to Raleigh.