Heels upset Wolfpack, 71-64

RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina went a long way to solidifying its first NCAA Tournament bid in three years with a heart-pounding 71-64 victory over N.C. State Sunday at the RBC Center. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels may have also ended the Wolfpack's hopes of its first ACC regular-season title since 1989.

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    "I don't know [if this gets us in the NCAA Tournament], it's not up to me," Sean May said. "But it sure helps for us to get a road win like this over a good team in a great environment."

    UNC's (17-8, 7-7 ACC) performance resembled many of its efforts this season, as Carolina put up a big lead – 16 points at its pinnacle with 1:14 left to play in the first half. But as has been their modus operandi, the Tar Heels squandered the advantage, and quicker this time than usual.

    After taking a 40-27 lead into intermission and for the most part having taken the partisan 19,722 fans out of the game to that point, the Tar Heels failed to score again until the 15:14 mark of the second half.

    "We were as ugly as we could possibly be in the first part of the second half," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We weren't passing the ball to the first open man and after committing six turnovers in the first half, we made 11 in the second half."

    But this time UNC sucked it up and weathered an opponent's best comeback shot to win down the stretch.

    And like so many times before, it was the clutch shooting of Rashad McCants that helped seal the victory. With the score tied at 56-56, McCants nailed back-to-back threes to put the Tar Heels up for good with 3:06 left to play in the game.

    "The ball rolled my way, I picked it up and I shot it," said McCants, who finished with a game-high 22 points. "It wasn't a conscious decision or anything like that.

    "I'm going to go in there and bust you up and get the shots that I need and my team is going to win."

    After a subsequent defensive stop by Carolina, Raymond Felton scored on a layup to push the Carolina lead up to six points. Then following Engin Atsur's three on the Wolfpack's next possession, Felton hit an incredible runner in the lane with the shot clock running down to put the Tar Heels up 64-59 with 1:05 to play.

    Moments later, May calmly sank two free throws staring into a sea of waving elongated red and white balloons, extending what was a tenuous Carolina lead to six points and touching off a mass exodus of red-clad fans to the parking lot.

    Jawad Williams came off the bench to score 15 points, and May and Felton added 11 and 10; respectively. Jawad Williams admitted he wasn't real happy about yielding the starting nod to David Noel, a move Roy Williams said was a decision based on personnel match-ups.

    "He's the coach and I'm not going to argue with that," Jawad Williams said. "I'm a pretty good defender and I'm going to come out and play hard regardless of the situation. But we needed this, and it just feels good to get a win – period."

    UNC shot 55.6 percent from floor – its best performance in an ACC game this year, and held State to 35.9 percent – again a season best for the Tar Heels in conference. Carolina was 8-for-16 from three-point range, while the Wolfpack was a miserable 8-for-34. State entered the game shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc.

    "I liked our toughness," Roy Williams said. "Instead of quitting, we kept after it. Of course, with me saying this, we realize we caught State on a day when they didn't make a lot of their shots.

    "There was one point where I told our players that we can't be pansies out there; we've got to stand in there and face the fire."

    It was No. 14 N.C. State's (18-7, 10-4) first home loss of the year, and just the Tar Heels' second conference win on the road since Dec. 22, 2002. Carolina has also now swept at least one ACC regular season opponent since the league's inception in 1953.

    A three from Levi Watkins with 13:31 left pulled the Wolfpack within 42-40, which set the fans alight. From that point on, the Tar Heels were in a dogfight amongst the most hostile of surroundings.

    Then with 8:53 remaining, Marcus Melvin tied the score at 48-48 on a three with one second on the shot clock. Another three by Melvin a few minutes later would give State its first lead of the game since the game's opening moments at 52-51. But Felton nailed a three of his own on the Tar Heels' ensuing possession to quickly put the Tar Heels back ahead.

    "They played a great basketball game," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. "Rashad McCants made a couple of key shots that were reserved for a special player. They were daggers down the stretch."

    "I thought [McCants] was more focused today that he has been," Roy Williams added. "I think he realized that we needed him to score…and we're going to need him to do that. Tonight he came through."

    The Tar Heels, currently tied with Georgia Tech for fourth-place in the ACC, host Clemson Tuesday night in Chapel Hill – a town in which the Tigers have never won a basketball game in 49 attempts.

    Senior writer Andy Britt is in his second year with Inside Carolina. His work has appeared in newspapers across the nation such as The Raleigh News & Observer, The Chapel Hill News, The State (Columbia, S.C.), The Seattle Times, The Houston Chronicle and The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at a.j.britt@mindspring.com.

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