RALEIGH, N.C. – DJ Burns Jr. knew North Carolina State teammate Jarkel Joiner was ready for a big moment.
“He came out of a timeout, he looked me dead in my face and he said, `Set me some ballscreens, I’m hot,”‘ Burns said.
Joiner backed it up, too.
The graduate transfer took over for No. 23 N.C. State during a critical second-half stretch, matching his season high with 29 points to lead the Wolfpack past rival North Carolina 77-69.
Joiner had 20 of his points after the break for the Wolfpack (21-7, 11-6 Atlantic Coast Conference). That included an impressive flurry in a tight game that finally gave N.C. State some breathing room that turned into a strong finishing kick.
“Just confidence, man,” Joiner said of his big second half. “My teammates and my coaches trust in me.”
Joiner’s arrival from Mississippi has been a critical piece to Kevin Keatts’ sixth-season surge, providing scoring and heady veteran play for a team needing an infusion of experience. It’s why N.C. State (21-7, 11-6) has bounced back from last year’s 21-loss season and took Round 2 with the Tar Heels (16-11, 8-8) after losing last month’s meeting in nearby Chapel Hill.
“It’s tough in this league when you don’t have a quarterback, when you don’t have a point guard,” Keatts said. “And he makes us better.”
The Tar Heels didn’t have an answer for him, with Joiner making 8 of 11 shots after the break. That included a huge transition 3-pointer from right in front of the Wolfpack bench – which pushed N.C. State to a 67-60 lead with 4:47 left, the largest lead by any team to that point.
He followed a bit later with a tough stepback jumper against Caleb Love that pushed the lead to nine, capping a 12-1 that had given the Wolfpack control and turned PNC Arena into a screaming frenzy of unleashed rivalry spite from the Wolfpack crowd.
Burns added 14 of his 18 points after halftime for N.C. State, which shot 64.5% in the second half and had just three turnovers for the game.
Love scored 20 points to lead UNC, while Armando Bacot had 16 points and 14 rebounds. But the Tar Heels continued a February crash that has put their NCAA Tournament chances in growing jeopardy, falling for the fifth time in six games after shooting just 35.5%.
“They got hot, Joiner got hot, and it kind of erupted the crowd,” Love said. “Playing in a place like this, it’s tough. you’ve got to execute at the highest level and we didn’t do that.”
UNC: The Tar Heels have gone from preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25 to scrapping for an NCAA bid. They entered Sunday with an 0-8 record in Quadrant 1 games, the top tier on a postseason resume. This one could’ve helped, but it instead ended with Wolfpack fans chanting at them in the final seconds: “NIT! NIT!”
“Coach (Hubert) Davis said he’s not giving up on us and we’re going to continue to battle,” said R.J. Davis, who had seven points on 2-for-13 shooting. “I mean, that’s the only thing you can do right now.”
N.C. State: In the AP Top 25 for the first time in four years, Keatts’ squad is pursuing its first NCAA berth since 2018. Sunday was about staying on that track and, of course, beating a rival that has largely owned the series of late by winning 36 of 41 meetings entering Sunday.
The Wolfpack eventually went up 75-63 when Ernest Ross ran down a long pass ahead and saved it behind him to a trailing Casey Morsell for a layup that elevated the ear-ringing noise even more with only 89 seconds left.
The Tar Heels called timeout, and N.C. State players began to celebrate, with Terquavion Smith walking near the baseline with arms raised to motion for more noise from courtside fans. Burns stood a few feet away, popping the front of his jersey to the roaring fans in the end zone.
UNC: At Notre Dame on Wednesday.
N.C. State: Hosting Wake Forest on Wednesday.