N.C. State saw its 16-point second-half lead shrink to two, and it heard the Smith Center crowd at its loudest of the season, and it might have then sensed, perhaps, what so many other Wolfpack teams have when they've traveled to this building: doom.
Just when N.C. State seemed on the brink of collapse, though, it discovered some resolve and some grit – and made some shots, too. The Wolfpack left Chapel Hill with a 58-46 victory – its first in this building since 2003.
Before Tuesday night, N.C. State had never won in the Smith Center against a Roy Williams-coached UNC team. Between now and the last time the Wolfpack won in Chapel Hill, there had been 12 consecutive N.C. State losses at the Smith Center, and only a few of them had been competitive.
The Wolfpack, though, broke that streak with one of its finest defensive games of the season and, in the process, earned a victory that will go a long way toward securing a bid to the NCAA tournament. The loss, meanwhile, was a confounding one for UNC, which was coming off two of its strongest games.
The momentum the Tar Heels had built during that 92-90 loss at Duke last week and in a blowout victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday mattered not against N.C. State, though. UNC's 46 points were its fewest ever in the Smith Center. The Tar Heels shot 34.5 percent.
N.C. State controlled it from the start. The Wolfpack took its first lead with about 17 ½ minutes to play in the first half and it never trailed after that.
N.C. State recently had so often been done in by Marcus Paige, the UNC junior guard who scored 23 points in the Tar Heels' victory against N.C. State in Raleigh last month, and who averaged 20 points against the Wolfpack in two victories a season ago.
This time, though, Paige finished with just seven points. Cat Barber led N.C. State with 15 points and Trevor Lacey and Ralson Turner both scored 14 points.
The Wolfpack held a commanding lead early in the second half but the Tar Heels nearly came all the way back. N.C. State led 36-20 with a little less than 16 minutes remaining.
From there, though, the Tar Heels began a run that had the Smith Center crowd – which had recently drawn the ire of Williams for being too quiet and passive – as loud as it has been all season, and maybe in several seasons.
UNC's run began innocently enough, with a jump shot from Justin Jackson, the freshman forward, that made it a 14-point game. Then 30 seconds later Jackson made another jumper, the crowd began to come to life.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried called a timeout then, his team's lead cut to 12 points. Then, about a minute later, Gottfried called another timeout after UNC had cut its deficit to eight. And then Gottfried was signaling for another timeout not long after that after the Wolfpack's lead had shrunk to four.
In the span of about 3 ½ minutes, the Tar Heels had gone from trailing by 16 to trailing by four. In a little more than a few minutes, they'd pulled off a 12-0 run that all but erased the memory of an abysmal first half.
UNC, though, never tied the game and never led after it scored the first two points. Williams said he and his team let the crowd down, and N.C. State, which shot 35.1 percent, neutralized the Tar Heels inside.
“Defensively, they were sensational,” Williams said.