CHAPEL HILL--- Saturday afternoon's battle between North Carolina and N.C. State in the Smith Center was similar to a heavyweight fight---a back-and-forth struggle in which two fighters went blow-for-blow for 40 entertaining minutes.
Carolina built a double-digit lead early in the second half, only to watch it wither away and see N.C. State take a four-point lead midway through the final period.
Just when it looked like the game was getting away from the Tar Heels, a barrage of made shots, defense, and energy paved the way for a 76-65 victory that broke the third-place tie between UNC and NCSU.
"I'm really proud of my team. We got down four and they kept competing," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards.
The two longtime rivals played neck-and-neck throughout an emotional and physical first half. Although it was mostly low-scoring, it wasn't without action. Neither team gained a lead of more than six points, which happened to be UNC's halftime advantage (34-28).
Early in the final period UNC broke the lead briefly out to ten (38-28) before N.C. State caught fire and settled down defensively, fighting their way back into contention.
"We came out and didn't play very well a couple of moments there in the second half. We scored the first two baskets and then we got a little fat and happy and did some things we shouldn't be doing," said Williams about N.C. State's 25-11 run, which gave the Wolfpack a 53-49 lead with under nine minutes to go.
But UNC, still angry about the way they laid down and let the Wolfpack dominate them for stretches over in Raleigh in late January, bore down and refused to yield.
Following a mass substitution by Coach Williams, substituting his five regulars for backups, the Tar Heels took command of the game, building a 70-57 mark by the final media timeout and never looking back.
"I was just ticked off (when I made the five-for-five substitution)," Williams said. "I thought we were being lackadaisical and casual with everything we did. We turned it over two out of three possessions, and one of them we were lucky we collected the ball. But we really made a bad play."
"Scott Wood had just made a three on Reggie, and then he got hot and made two on J.P.," Williams continued. "Scott Wood is pretty doggone good, but I don't think it was the deciding factor in the game. When those guys came back in, they had a greater sense of purpose."
UNC took the lead for good on a three-pointer by Marcus Paige, which gave Carolina a 57-55 lead at the 7:15 mark and sending the Smith Center crowd into a frenzy.
It was a banner game for Paige---sweet redemption after arguably his worst performance of his freshman season when UNC lost in PNC Arena to the Wolfpack.
"Marcus Paige, I thought, made some big baskets for us in the second half. Eight assists and zero turnovers (was huge), particularly after he played so poorly over at Raleigh, and he knew that."
Williams says he didn't have to give Paige any extra motivation for this one.
After struggling mightily over in Raleigh he knew he had to step up Saturday and he did, scoring 14 points and adding three steals to go along with his 8-0 assists-to-turnovers ratio.
"I didn't say one word to him (Paige) about, 'We need you to play better than you did the first game.' I didn't say anything like that at all. He's just a tough little nut, and I think he's going to be a big-time player for us," Williams said.
"(This win) was big for us," added Paige. "A lot of the reason was because of the way we played against them last time. It left a bad taste in our mouths to come out in that big of a game and not play the way we wanted to, so we really wanted to come out and set the tone early and compete the entire time. We did a good job of that."
Paige was one of four Tar Heels in double figures, led by Reggie Bullock, who tallied a game-high 22 points while also leading UNC with a whopping 13 turnovers, which inspired his coach.
"A lot of guys did some really good things," Williams said. "Reggie Bullock, 13 rebounds, four offensive rebounds, and I think two of them were on free throws---that's just a sense of urgency about how to play the game, and I love that."
Bullock, in typical unselfish fashion, deferred his praise to Paige and his teammates.
"He (Paige) has been growing," Bullock said. "His confidence is sky-high, and he feels like he can compete with anybody. We know that he can compete with anybody. He's just going to try to make the best play to help his teammates. When he gets his feet set, we always feel like his jumper is going in."
Carolina got the win over the Wolfpack despite getting largely dominated on the glass, especially the offensive glass, as NCSU picked up 14 offensive boards. Two NCSU standouts (Richard Howell and T.J. Warren) produced double-doubles for the 'Pack (Howell 13 points, 17 rebounds, Warren 10 points, 10 rebounds).
"They're a tough team, and the rebounding part killed us early in the game. And then getting back in transition defense wasn't as good, but in the second half I thought we rebounded better, got back better, and made some shots," said Williams.
"I thought it was a heck of a college basketball game, and we are disappointed," said NCSU head coach Mark Gottfried. "I thought my team competed hard and I thought theirs did, too. We just had a stretch there from the eight-minute mark in the second half to the four-minute mark where we had some empty possessions."
"They, in turn, took advantage of that and knocked down a couple key threes. That little stretch right there I thought was the difference in the game."
One of the biggest keys to the win for Carolina was holding NCSU senior standout C.J. Leslie to just six points and four rebounds with six turnovers. In all, UNC forced 17 Wolfpack turnovers, compared to just 10 errors of its own.
"For us, 10 turnovers in the game, we've been taking better care of the basketball," said Williams. "That hurt us more than anything in Raleigh. Turnovers forty feet from the basket that they turn into fast breaks. I think tonight we may have taken one or two shots that I didn't want to take."
"I think the sense of urgency, the toughness, and making shots---bring all three together, were good for us," Williams continued.
Carolina now finds itself in great shape to make the NCAA Tournament and in significantly better position to finish in the upper third of the ACC standings than when the day started.
But UNC of course can't afford to get ahead of itself, with tough road games to come at Clemson and Maryland, as well as home games against Florida State and Duke.
"I think the biggest thing is not worrying about the future," said James Michael McAdoo, who had 14 points and seven rebounds. "Not worrying about the tournaments, none of that. Just focusing on each and every day. Showing up ready to play and letting all that stuff (the postseason) take care of itself. When we do that, we're a pretty good team."
Some would argue a dangerous team after the way the Tar Heels have played in recent outings.
"I think we're starting to click a little bit," added Paige. "We're starting to play harder, which should never be a problem, but we are playing a lot harder. We're getting in transition, everybody's contributing. We're having a balanced attack. I think we're just overall growing as a team game-by-game throughout conference play."