N.C. State got what they wanted.
There was a minute left against No. 12 North Carolina on Tuesday night and the No. 15 Wolfpack were down 82-78. Their press, which had worked on and off throughout the night, forced the turnover. Markell Johnson gets into the lane, draws a defender and finds C.J. Bryce — a 38 percent three-point shooter — all alone in the corner for a three that would have cut UNC’s lead to just a single point with plenty of time left on the clock.
Bryce airballs the three.
Seven seconds later, Leaky Black gets behind N.C. State’s defense for an uncontested dunk.
N.C. State would go on to lose 90-82 in the biggest game for the program in the Kevin Keatts era, and while the scoreboard will say that the Tar Heels were in control for the majority of the night, N.C. State is going to wake up tomorrow ruing the chances that they had.
Because that one sequence summed up what was a frustrating night in Raleigh.
Every time N.C. State looked like they were in a position to take the lead or take control of this thing, it was the Tar Heels that made the big plays and big shots.
The Wolfpack dug themselves a 12 point hole before they even scored. They trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, yet with six minutes left before the break they had cut the lead to two points. With the score 33-31, the Wolfpack missed a three and a layup before UNC pushed the lead back to eight. N.C. State tied the game at 47 early in the second half only to foul Cam Johnson as he made a three for a four-point play. After tying the game at 53, Johnson again answered with a three, sparking an 11-2 run to push the lead to nine. With 10 minutes left, Bryce was fouled with the Wolfpack down two. He made 1-of-2 from the line, but N.C. State would go scoreless for the next five minutes, even as UNC struggled to find a way to get their own offense going. In a game where the Tar Heels put up 90, they only managed to push their lead to ten during that stretch.
“I like where my team’s at,” Kevin Keatts said after the game. “If we clean some things up, we have a chance to be a very good basketball team.”
“I’m not frustrated by that,” he added when asked about the runs that fell short. “It means we won’t lay down.”
And he’s right.
This is a good N.C. State team. They’re scrappy, they play hard and the pieces fit with the style that Keatts wants to play. They are probably more talented than they get credit for, and it’s impressive to see the way that they have come together in a situation where so many faces are new.
But the difference between N.C. State and North Carolina is that, right now, Roy Williams has dudes, and they not only know when they need to step up and make a play, they can do it. Luke Maye is a senior that was an all-american last season. He made a couple of huge jumpers to quell runs in the first half. Cameron Johnson is a senior that is playing like an all-american this season. The two threes he made early in the second half to keep the Wolfpack at bay were probably the two biggest shots of the game. Coby White is dynamic in transition and does not appear to have ever been fazed by the moment or the pressure. Kenny Williams has been a part of a team that went to the national title game and won a title the following season.
N.C. State doesn’t have dudes that are ready for those moments yet.
And I don’t think this is an immaturity thing. I’m not trying to insinuate that N.C. State choked, or that they can’t win big games. Nothing like that.
Maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, but I do think that there is a hurdle that teams have to get over when it comes to games like this one — a battle between two ranked rivals in an absolutely raucous environment.
North Carolina has been there. No one on that team was fazed by the noise, or the game-pressure, or the Wolfpack making a run.
That’s what is it to be “clutch.” To have the confidence and the mental fortitude to be able to execute a play and make a shot in a moment that should overpower a player, and at this level, I think that comes with experience.
North Carolina has it, and that’s because they’ve been through games like this before.
N.C. State will get there.
And the only way to do it is to — win or lose — play games like this.