After falling behind by 15 points early in the second half the Wolfpack clawed its way back into the game, cutting the advantage to just six points when Dennis Horner drained a 3-pointer with 11 minutes remaining. But the Tar Heels again pulled away with a decisive 12-2 run late in the game to win 89-80 on Wednesday night at the Smith Center.
"Obviously I'm disappointed in losing the ballgame, I don't like to lose," head coach Sidney Lowe said. "But I'm proud of my guys. I'm proud of the way they played."
The Pack shot over 50 percent for the second-straight game, including 64 percent in the second half. But the team's defense allowed Carolina to shoot 63 percent in the last 20 minutes and the Pack only forced one turnover after forcing eight in the first half. For every Wolfpack score, the Heels had an immediate answer on their end of the court.
"When you don't play 'D' against a team like Carolina they are going to punish you – they are going to score," senior Ben McCauley said. "We shot well in the second half we just couldn't get stops."
"It's really disappointing because when you shoot that well you expect to win."
Javi Gonzalez led the Pack with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, scoring 16 of his points in the first half before the Carolina defense adjusted. Three other Pack players scored in double figures as Tracy Smith scored 15 points and grabbed eight boards while Dennis Horner and Brandon Costner scored 13 and 12 respectively.
"I haven't seen Javi play like that in a long time," Smith said. "Javi came out in the first half like he wanted to win. He came out playing hard, shooting the ball well. I thought we had a chance in the first half but in the second half we came out just kind of lackadaisical."
The Pack came out aggressive at the opening tip, jumping out to an 11-6 lead thanks to some hot shooting on its first few possession. But the Carolina fast break helped them cut that deficit down quickly, as 12 first-half points from Danny Green vaulted the Heels into the lead for the remainder of the half.
Carolina went on its biggest run in the last few minutes of the half when Gonzalez went to the bench. With Degand running the show the Pack offense ground to a halt, turning the ball over and allowing the Heels to go on a 11-3 spurt to take an eight-point lead. But when the sophomore point guard returned, he single-handedly brought them back to contention hitting two straight shots to cut Carolina's halftime advantage to 39-36.
Gonzalez set his career-high in the first half alone, scoring 16 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting including four 3-pointers. The offense as a whole shot just 45 percent, but five 3-pointers and eight turnovers by the Heels kept keep the Pack in the game after 20 minutes.
"He had an excellent first half and I thought he played well for us the entire game," Lowe said. "He did what he had to do."
The Pack got within one point on the first possession of the second half, but Carolina appeared to put the game away with a 14-0 run at that point that put them up 53-38 at the 16-minute mark of the second half. But the resilient Pack clawed back, cutting the lead down to six points on a 3-pointer from Horner and quieting the sell-out crowd.
At that point the Heels showed why they are the hottest team in the conference and winners of their last 10 games in a row. Fueled by nine straight points from Wayne Ellington, North Carolina shut the door on State's comeback hopes with 12-2 stretch. The loss snaps a two-game win streak for the Pack in league play, but they'll get a chance to rebound as the team hosts Virginia this weekend at the RBC Center.
"It's the mark of a good team," Lowe said. "Guys that understand the importance of making a run that first five minutes [of the second half]. They've been in it, they've done it. They know."