Luke DeCock

Wolfpack wilts under bright lights, while Tar Heels dazzle – DeCock

These are the bright lights, whether they’re on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. These are the big games. These are the ones that matter, the ones that can be remembered long after the players and coaches have moved along – and are when they end up like this.

You’re either ready for that glare or you’re not. North Carolina, with Theo Pinson finally in the lineup, has been through this before, so many times, on bigger stages than this. The Tar Heels barely flinched.

And N.C. State? Not even close.

This was North Carolina’s game before it even tipped, whether it was played at night or during the day, on Saturday or Sunday. The Tar Heels were ready for this. After that embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech and the narrow win at Clemson, they were waiting for this chance, their home ACC opener against a team that Roy Williams cares very deeply about beating.

And N.C. State, after knocking off a ranked opponent at home, was eager for its first real step onto the national stage, to see Dennis Smith Jr. measure himself against Joel Berry, talking about adopting a “bad boys” mentality, only to be utterly overwhelmed by the opponent and scene to suffer the second-biggest loss in program history to not only North Carolina but any opponent, 107-56.

Too much, too soon.

It’s easy to focus on how bad N.C. State was, because the Wolfpack was truly awful from the start, but that risks overlooking just how good North Carolina was. With Pinson back, the Tar Heels unleashed their full power to score their most points ever against N.C. State. Williams, desperate for something to complain about at halftime while up by 33, settled on offensive rebounding, although his team didn’t have many misses to rebound.

“We’ve had some days, it’s about as ugly as it can possibly be,” Williams said. “Today, it was awfully pretty at times.”

Despite the 26-point home shellacking of Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack has looked utterly overwhelmed in its two road ACC games. With two likely top-15 picks, another potential first-rounder and two transfers who averaged double digits in other conferences, there should be more here than there is. But N.C. State has only a passing acquaintance with defense, and while its offense can be explosive at times, it has twice now gotten lost in the moment in ACC play.

That was clear from the start Sunday. The Wolfpack had seven turnovers and was 2-for-12 from the field by the time North Carolina was up 26-4. At one point, the Wolfpack had as many airballs (three) as field goals. N.C. State even had a 30-second violation in each half, apparently in pursuit of some kind of bad-basketball bingo.

“We rushed offensively,” Gottfried said. “We were in a hurry. All of a sudden it goes from six to 10 to 15, and now it’s kind of like an avalanche, trying to stop it. We didn’t have enough poise early on.”

Give North Carolina a lot of credit for that: If N.C. State couldn’t stop making mistakes, it was partly because the Tar Heels gave the Wolfpack absolutely no room to breathe. Once Smith exited with his third foul midway through the first half, whatever hopes N.C. State had of making a comeback went with him, not that there was much chance of that anyway.

Only three times before had North Carolina ever hit triple-digits against N.C. State, and not for 24 years. Two years ago, the Wolfpack turned the tables, breaking a 12-game losing streak at the Smith Center. That group, while also full of transfers and young players, had something this team clearly lacks at the moment. It’s one thing to lose at North Carolina, and there’s no shame in it when the Tar Heels play like this. It’s something else entirely to lose like this, N.C. State’s worst loss in almost a century.

The Wolfpack wanted to play under these bright lights, but they can just as easily blind you.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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