J.P. Tokoto and his teammates at North Carolina learned something about N.C. State when the teams met last month in Raleigh, where the Wolfpack nearly erased a 12-point second-half deficit before their rally ended with a missed shot at the buzzer.
“They’re relentless,” junior forward Tokoto said Monday. “They don’t give up. And they’re not the only team in the ACC like that. So it’s not a surprise. If we do get up, even if we get down, the game is long. Two minutes seems like 20 minutes.”
After UNC’s 81-79 victory at PNC Arena on Jan. 14, the teams headed in opposite directions. That victory was the second in a six-game winning streak for UNC. N.C. State responded with a victory against Florida State but then lost five of its next six games.
Now the old rivals will reconvene at the Smith Center after rediscovering themselves, in a sense. The Tar Heels have put together two of their strongest games of the season during the past week, although one came in a 92-90 overtime defeat at Duke.
The Wolfpack, meanwhile, will ride a two-game winning streak into Chapel Hill – its first winning streak since December. N.C. State will hope to extend one streak while ending another: It has lost 11 consecutive games at the Smith Center, and has never beaten a Roy Williams-coached UNC team there.
“North Carolina is, I’m sure, heavily favored and most people would think we have very little chance,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “But our guys are excited about the chance to go play in Chapel Hill.”
History suggests they shouldn’t be. Few of N.C. State’s past 11 games at the Smith Center have been close.
Outside of UNC’s 68-66 victory in 2004 and a nine-point victory in 2009, the Tar Heels have won the other nine games by double digits. UNC has won the past five games in the series in Chapel Hill by an average of 15.4 points.
Entering this one, N.C. State might have an edge when it comes to motivation. A victory at UNC would significantly bolster the Wolfpack’s NCAA tournament resume and, barring a late-season collapse, would go a long way toward sealing a tournament bid.
Still, Williams said, “We need wins also. That’s what I tell them. You hear people talk about (it) all the time – they’re playing with a purpose. By golly, we better be playing with a purpose, too. They have tremendous incentive to play well. So do we.”
The Tar Heels aren’t playing for their NCAA tournament fate – they’ve likely locked up a bid regardless of what happens the rest of the season – but they are playing for a different kind of postseason positioning. If UNC finishes among the top four teams in the ACC, it would have a double-bye into the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
UNC and Louisville are tied for fourth place. They split their two regular-season games.
“Of course you’d like to get in the top four,” Williams said. “I mean, my gosh. But do I lay awake at night trying to figure out where we’re going to be or anything?
“The season is so demanding that I think even more so now than it was in the past, you can’t think about those kinds of things because if you do you’re wasting your time.”
Williams said he didn’t even know when the ACC tournament began until his wife, Wanda, reminded him Sunday night that it starts on a Tuesday this year.
“I did have to ask,” Williams said.
Before his team’s performance at Duke and Saturday in an 89-60 victory against Georgia Tech, Williams had been asking a lot more, too, from his players. His message seems to have sunk in the past two games, with the Tar Heels playing with more sustained effort and energy – and execution – than at any point this season.
Both teams recently have received more production out of players they’d been counting on to emerge: Cat Barber for the Wolfpack and Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks for UNC.
Now comes a rivalry game in which those intangibles – on both sides – should be a given. UNC led throughout in the first meeting before N.C. State gave itself a chance late.
The teams went different ways for a while, but they reunite at the intersection of high points, both trying to build on fresh momentum.