Frustrated Heels ‘just that close'

Sunday's match-up between rivals North Carolina and N.C. State needs nothing to add to its intrigue, as both come in with their highest combined ranking since 1989. But unless the twelfth-ranked Tar Heels can pull off the upset in Raleigh, a 51-year-old streak will come to an end.

  • Previewing N.C. State
  • Roy Williams' Quotes

    Since the ACC's inception in 1953, Carolina has never failed to sweep at least one league opponent in the regular-season home-and-home format.

    UNC (16-8, 6-7 ACC) defeated the Wolfpack, 68-66, in Chapel Hill on Jan. 28. The Tar Heels have already split their series with Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Florida State and Virginia, while its final two opponents – Clemson and Duke – beat them in earlier games.

    No. 14 N.C. State (18-6, 10-3) is 14-0 at home this year, including a 6-0 conference mark.

    In five of the Tar Heels' seven ACC losses, they have surrendered substantial leads. Four of them ended in losses of six points or less. A team that has proven it can compete with the nation's toughest opponents – especially at home – has seemed on the verge of turning the corner all season long.

    According to UNC coach Roy Williams, in order for the Tar Heels to take that next step, they simply need to do the little things better, such as making more free throws, boxing out better and getting more consistent play on the defensive end of the floor.

    If they make free throws down the stretch, they beat Wake Forest instead of losing in triple overtime. If Rashad McCants doesn't reach across the baseline and touch the ball before the inbounds pass at Maryland, perhaps they get a final chance at winning that one. If Raymond Felton doesn't fall down and allow for a game tying three at Florida State, then that's likely a victory. If they don't breakdown late against Duke, they win. And if they get just one of three available rebounds on Virginia's final possession, then that one's a ‘W.'

    Now while you can't build a solid argument on a foundation of ‘ifs,' it is clear that Carolina is a dangerous team that may be just one good confidence building victory from stepping up to the next level.

    "Learning to win in tight game situations and maintaining your poise is fantastic," Williams said. "It's something that needs to be done. Until you get accustomed to making those decisions properly and having success with them, that's the battle that you're fighting the whole time."

    The reason for Carolina's difficulties this year is not a mystical one, which makes it all the more frustrating for Williams. The difference between winning and losing in the ACC this season is "just that much" he said, putting his thumb and index finger close together.

    "The more you win, the more you win," Williams said. "The more birdies you make, the more confident you get and you make more birdies."

    The consensus belief is that one more ACC win will clinch a NCAA Tournament berth for the Tar Heels after a two-year hiatus. And with Tuesday's ‘gimmie' – a meeting with Clemson, which is 0-for-49 in Chapel Hill, most believe UNC will qualify for an invitation, if it has not already.

    But until the Tar Heels can put together 40 minutes like they have shown they're capable of playing in stretches, then their return to the Big Dance could be a short-lived one.

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