CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks attacked the rim, scored through contact and kept throwing himself on the floor for loose balls.
“It was just total effort,” coach Roy Williams said.
The fifth-ranked Tar Heels needed every bit of it against rival North Carolina State, too.
Meeks scored 18 of his 23 points after halftime to help UNC beat N.C. State 67-55 on Saturday, extending the program’s best conference start in 15 years.
While UNC’s best scorers – and the team as a whole – struggled to find a flow, the 6-foot-10 Meeks provided the push as the Tar Heels (16-2, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) gradually pulled away from a halftime tie.
It was Meeks’ second game back after missing seven with a knee injury. He returned last weekend at Syracuse, then returned to the starting lineup Saturday.
“I had the whole week off, I went as hard as I could those last few days of practice,” Meeks said. “I really got after it, got back in the lineup. It’s all a confidence thing for me, so I got back in the second half and really tried to play as big as I could.”
He made 8 of 10 shots after halftime and blocked two shots while repeatedly diving on the floor.
“I asked him, `Did you really dive those three times or did somebody trip you?”‘ Williams joked afterward.
Abdul-Malik Abu had 12 points and 14 rebounds for the Wolfpack, who controlled tempo and attacked the glass early to build momentum and keep UNC off stride.
But with the teams tied at halftime, the Tar Heels pushed ahead with a 16-4 second-half run that featured Meeks scoring over long-armed BeeJay Anya inside – the kind of shots Anya erased in last year’s 58-46 win here by the Wolfpack.
N.C. State (10-8, 0-5) has its worst start in ACC play since going 0-8 in 1996-97.
“We’re not going to pout and mope,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “They’re not going to do that and we’re not going to let them. I’ve said this many times: `You watch this game today, I think you have a hard time walking away from here saying `N.C. State’s a really bad team.’ … But we’re a team that has to get over the hump.”
N.C. State: Maverick Rowan and Cody Martin, who started over twin brother Caleb, both scored 10 points. … N.C. State shot 40 percent. … The Wolfpack had 18 turnovers. … Anya had three blocks after swatting six here last year.
UNC: Joel Berry II had 14 points, including two 3s during the 16-4 run. … UNC came in as one of the nation’s best-shooting teams at 50 percent, but finished a season-low 37.9 percent. … UNC went 5 of 20 from 3-point range. … The Tar Heels scored 17 points off turnovers.
ACC-leading scorer Anthony “Cat” Barber (22.5 points) had a rough day with a season-low nine points. The Wolfpack point guard didn’t score after halftime, finishing with more turnovers (5) than field goals (4) or free throws (1) in 35 minutes.
The Tar Heels’ top three scorers – Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson – combined for 15 points on 6-for-24 shooting. But UNC and USC were the only teams with six scorers currently averaging in double figures through Thursday’s games, according to STATS. That balanced showed Saturday.
“The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is we’re dynamic and flexible enough offensively to not sink in a game like that when our best players are struggling,” Paige said.
N.C. State travels to No. 20 Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
UNC hosts Wake Forest on Wednesday.