The final outcome on Tuesday night, N.C. State’s first win at North Carolina since 2003, sent some Wolfpack fans into a mattress-burning frenzy on Hillsborough Street.
But sophomore guard Cat Barber was more impressed with the way the Wolfpack handed the 15th-ranked Tar Heels a 58-46 loss at the Smith Center.
The combination of strong defense and smart guard play is the same formula that has fueled plenty an NCAA tournament run. It’s the same formula N.C. State has embraced during a three-game winning streak that includes road wins over two top 15 opponents – at then-No. 9 Louisville on Feb. 14 and UNC.
“The way were playing right now is kind of scary,” Barber said. “And we’re just going to keep getting better.”
The Wolfpack (17-11, 8-7 ACC) has found its way recently with a newfound defensive excellence.
The 48 points on Tuesday were the fewest UNC has scored in the Smith Center, which opened in 1986.
Since giving up 88 points in a road loss to Wake Forest on Feb. 3, the nadir of the season, N.C. State has committed to playing better defense.
In the past four games, N.C. State has allowed an average of 54.2 points per game.
In the previous eight games, N.C. State allowed 75.1 per game. That’s a staggering difference, one noted by the players.
“We’ve seen that if you really play defense, you have a good shot at winning,” junior guard Trevor Lacey said.
That was clear enough Tuesday, in just the program’s seventh win in Chapel Hill in the past 40 years.
After the game, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said the team would celebrate, and it did, pulling the team bus up to the Bell Tower to join in the reverie with students, who found a stray mattress and a UNC jersey to burn before the fire department interceded.
The Wolfpack seems to be burning its recent past with each memorable road win. A month ago, the Wolfpack squandered an 18-point lead at home against Notre Dame and lost 81-78 in overtime.
That game, and the poor finish – the Wolfpack led 71-66 with 76 seconds left in regulation – taught the Wolfpack a lesson.
“You have to play both halves, you have to finish games,” Lacey said. “Now that we’re doing that, we’re a good team.”
The improvement is evident on defense. UNC shot just 34.5 percent Tuesday, down from 55.6 percent from its 81-79 win in Raleigh on Jan. 14.
UNC guard Marcus Paige scored 23 points in that game and 35 last year in an overtime win over the Wolfpack. Barber held Paige to seven points, on eight shot attampts on Tuesday.
While N.C. State’s guards concentrated on swarming Paige, sophomore forward BeeJay Anya protected the rim with six blocked shots.
“We can pressure the ball and know that when he’s behind us to block shots and change shots,” Lacey said.
Meanwhile, N.C. State’s trio of guards — Barber, Lacey and Ralston Turner — combined to score 43 of the Wolfpack’s 58 points.
Much of N.C. State’s strategy with the ball was to play slow, milk the clock in the halfcourt set and then let Barber or Lacey create.
Turner was usually the outlet for a kick out after a drive. He knocked down four 3-pointers, none bigger than the one from the left wing at 10:40 in the second half after UNC had cut N.C. State’s 16-point lead down to two.
Lacey said the best part of the win was the way N.C. State responded to the Tar Heels’ run. The Wolfpack didn’t panic, despite the pressure or precedent.
“I like the way we are playing, we just have to keep it up,” Lacey said.