Despite drilling a dozen three-pointers and getting 20 points from Julius Hodge, the Wolfpack couldn't overtake the rival Tar Heels at the RBC Center tonight, falling 81-71. NC State (15-11, 5-8 in the ACC) closed to within three points of second-ranked UNC (23-3, 11-2) with 10:38 remaining, but the Heels used offensive rebounding and free throws to hold off the Pack.
The game seesawed back and forth for much of the first half, with State opening up a four-point advantage at 26-22 with 6:49 left. However, UNC reeled off eight straight points out of a timeout, opening up a five-point lead, 35-30 after a three-pointer by Jawad Williams. Hodge countered with a bomb from beyond the arc, but as is becoming customary for the Wolfpack this season, the visitors had the final say in the first half. Melvin Scott's third three-pointer of the opening stanza beat the halftime buzzer and sent the Heels to the locker room with a five-point margin, 38-33.
Hodge struggled in the first 20 minutes, missing three point-blank shots and turning the ball over four times. Nine points apiece from Engin Atsur and Jordan Collins kept the Pack close, along with an 8-for-8 performance from the charity stripe. UNC won the battle of the boards, 15-12, and knocked down 6-of-12 three-pointers in the opening half.
Scott didn't cool off out of intermission, dropping in a three-pointer to stake the Tar Heels to an eight-point lead, 41-38. Back-to-back buckets by Collins trimmed the margin back to four, NC State missed its first six three-pointers of the half and fell behind by 10, 49-39. However, Pack rookie Andrew Brackman put together a scintillating sequence, scoring eight straight points in 1:12, drawing NC State within three points at 53-50 with 10:38 left. In a key sequence, Raymond Felton missed a jump shot, but Sean May corralled the offensive board and kicked it back out to Felton, who drained a three-pointer. UNC then got a dunk from May, a three from Jawad Williams and another three-pointer from Felton as part of an 11-2 run that put the Heels up by a dozen, 64-52.
Hodge connected from beyond the arc to slice the margin to seven, 69-62, with 2:16 left, but the Tar Heels kept the Wolfpack at bay. Another three-pointer from Cameron Bennerman again cut the advantage to seven, 78-71, with 26 seconds left, but the Tar Heels knocked down 10 of their final 13 free throws to cement the victory.
The Pack drilled seven out its final 10 threes in the second half, but only got to the line four times, converting three. UNC managed to shoot 50 percent (13-26) from the floor and 44.4 percent (4-9) from three-point range in the final 20 minutes, while hitting 13 of 17 from the charity stripe.
Hodge added five assists, four rebounds and a steal to his 20 points – which included 4-of-5 from downtown – but also committed five turnovers in 37 minutes. Atsur recorded 14 points, but was 4-of-13 from the field and 2-of-8 from three-point land, and Collins added 13 points and two assists, but grabbed just one rebound in 23 minutes. Ilian Evtimov had a quiet evening, scoring three points on 1-for-2 shooting and notching four boards, one turnover, two steals and zero assists before fouling out in 35 minutes. Tony Bethel also struggled, scoring six points in 33 minutes.
Off the bench, Brackman gave the Wolfpack a spark with eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in just seven minutes, but never returned to the contest after asking for a breather with 8:02 remaining. Bennerman added five points in 10 minutes, while Cedric Simmons contributed two points, four rebounds, an assists and four blocked shots in 14 minutes, while attempting just one shot and turning the ball over three times. Gavin Grant only got three minutes and drew coach Herb Sendek's ire when he was whistled for a key charge with 4:52 left and State trailing by 10.
NC State shot 45.3 percent (24-53) from the floor, 44.4 percent (12-27) from downtown and 91.7 percent (11-12) from the free-throw line for the contest, but turned the ball over 13 times. Scott was the hero of the game for UNC, drilling four three-pointers on his way to a dozen points after getting a rare start due to the illness of Rashad McCants, who didn't make the trip. Felton's 21 points led the Tar Heels, who also got double-digit scoring from Jawad Williams (15 points, 3-for-5 three-pointers), May (14 points, 12 boards) and Marvin Williams (14 points, 10-for-12 free throws). The Heels grabbed a dozen offensive rebounds as well, creating valuable second-chance opportunities.
Three separate mini-altercations pointed up the fierce nature of the rivalry. The Pack could never quite get over the hump in the second half, though, further damaging its hopes for an NCAA Tournament appearance. State must now win at least its final three regular-season games in order to have any shot at the "Big Dance" – or must win the ACC Tournament.