EAST LANSING, Mich. Inside an arena that can be one of the loudest in college basketball, there was mostly just silence and shock in the final moments of North Carolina’s 79-65 victory against Michigan State on Wednesday night.
The majority of the 15,000 people who packed into the Breslin Center expected to see the Spartans, the nation’s top-ranked team, put a hurting on the Tar Heels. Instead, for the second time in two weeks, a UNC team that has been doubted and cast aside defeated a top-5 opponent.
First it was then-No. 3 Louisville in Connecticut at the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off. On Wednesday night, it was the Spartans. Roy Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels coach, had difficulty putting this into words.
Not long after his team lost to Belmont, it beat Louisville. Three days after the Tar Heels suffered an ugly 63-59 defeat at UAB, they defeated Michigan State.
“I don’t know,” Williams said, before saying it two more times. “I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
The victory, which wasn’t even in doubt in the final minutes, was the Tar Heels’ first against No. 1 team since they beat Duke on March 4, 2006. In UNC’s two games against top-ranked teams since, it had lost a close one at Kentucky in 2011 and been run off the court at Indiana, just last season in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
One year later, in the same event, that kind of outcome might have seemed the most likely on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels on Sunday suffered that embarrassing defeat at UAB – a loss that had Williams questioning his team’s effort and toughness.
From the start here on Wednesday night, though, UNC (5-2) looked more like the team that beat Louisville than the one that lost against Belmont and UAB.
“Effort,” Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward, said when asked what was different on Wednesday than in the Tar Heels’ two losses. “We didn’t show enough effort in the UAB game. Today we really came out and were into the game.”
The Tar Heels led by as many as 14 in the first half and stretched their lead to 13 in the second half after Kennedy Meeks, the freshman center, made a layup that put UNC ahead 65-52 with about six minutes to play. Meeks finished with 15 points – nine coming in the second half.
He was one of five UNC players who scored in double figures, and he was a primary reason why the Tar Heels dominated on the interior. Williams bemoaned his lack of inside scoring against UAB, but the Tar Heels on Wednesday night outscored Michigan State 44-28 in the paint.
In addition to Meeks’ 15 points, Johnson scored 14. They combined for 13 rebounds. Aside from controlling the inside, UNC also outscored Michigan State in points off turnovers (19-7), second-chance points (19-10), fast break points (12-10) and bench points (31-17).
“It’s hard to explain,” UNC guard Marcus Paige, who finished with 13 points and five assists, said of his team’s wild swings. “It’s highs and lows so far for us. … It’s just – it’s crazy. We’re still getting there. We’re learning. And this is a big step for us.”
After Meeks gave UNC its 13-point lead in the second half, Michigan State never cut its deficit to fewer than eight points. The Spartans (7-1) shot just 31.3 percent from the field during the second half, and 35.9 percent for the game.
What transpired in the second half was a continuation of what UNC did during the first part of the first half.
Johnson made a jump shot that gave the Tar Heels a 20-6 lead with 11 minutes and 17 seconds to play before halftime. After that, though, the Spartans controlled the rest of the half, and limited UNC’s second chance opportunities.
At halftime, with the game tied at 32, Williams said he told his players that they had played well but that he expected more. Meeks said the coaching staff decided then to make scoring on the interior even more of a priority.
The strategy worked. The more UNC went inside, the more it seemed to open things up.
“I figured I could just spin off of them going in the middle,” said Meeks, a former standout at West Charlotte High. “I wanted to dump it off to Brice, throw the cross-court pass to Marcus as they start sagging in the lane as we started scoring in the lane more and more.”
Earlier in the week, Williams, lauded the Spartans’ experience and depth. He understood the task that faced his team. Then came Wednesday night, and another victory in a series of games – confounding defeats and victories, both – that neither Williams nor anyone can explain.
Williams at one point during his meeting with reporters said, “You can’t tell in college basketball what’s going to happen.” And sometimes, he said, you have to “understand kids are going to do some whacko things.”
His kids did that, again, on Wednesday night. As an unranked team, UNC hadn’t defeated a top-ranked opponent since 1990. These Tar Heels are the first since the 2000-01 team to own two victories against top-5 opponents.
Afterward, Paige spoke with a bright smile while he wore a “Thrill City” t-shirt, which was somewhat fitting, and McAdoo described a postgame celebration that even put to shame the one after the Louisville victory.
“It was a lot more intense, man,” he said. “... It was a crazy environment out there. Y’all saw it.”
By the end, though, the atmosphere wasn’t crazy at all. Just quiet, except for a small contingent of UNC supporters who celebrated another improbable moment.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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