CHAPEL HILL — NC State had not swept UNC in the regular season in a decade. When the two teams huddled for the under eight-minute official timeout with 7:42 to go in the game, the Pack was leading 55-52 and seemingly in position to end that drought.
The task, however, may have proven to be too exhausting. UNC spurted on a 21-4 run over the next six minutes and ended up with a 76-65 win that pushed the Heels past NC State in the ACC standings with four games left for both teams.
UNC improved to 19-8 overall but more important 9-5 in league play. NC State fell to 19-8 as well and now is 8-6 in the ACC.
"We took the lead, had a great run there to take that lead, they responded," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said after the game. "Give them credit for that. They could've been a little bit shaky right there too, and they weren't, so they did a nice job."
Both junior guard Lorenzo Brown and senior center Richard Howell conceded that NC State may have become fatigued against the deeper Tar Heels in the final stretch. But senior wing Scott Wood said it also came down to simple basketball.
"We didn't make shots and then blew a couple of defensive assignments," Wood explained.
Indeed, in the seven minutes following junior forward C.J. Leslie's dunk with 8:06 left that put the Pack up three, NC State went just 2 of 8 from the field, missed the front end of a one-and-one at the line and turned the ball over five times after not having a turnover in the first 12 minutes of the second half.
On the other end, UNC made five of its next seven shots coming out of the under eight timeout, highlighted by a pair of three-pointers from junior wing Reggie Bullock and one from freshman guard Marcus Paige.
Carolina also made 8 of 10 free throws, and when sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo missed a pair at the line with 4:23 to go, Bullock came away with the offensive rebound and 21 seconds later connected on a dagger three-pointer to put the Heels up 68-57.
Bullock and Paige were two of the standouts for UNC on this afternoon. Bullock finished with a game-high 22 points and made 5 of 12 three-pointers. He also finished with a double-double by collecting 13 rebounds.
Paige shook off a miserable first game against NC State at the PNC Arena in Raleigh Jan. 26 by posting 14 points and eight assists with no turnovers.
"I thought [Paige] played really well," Gottfried noted. "He was under control. I thought a couple of threes and his drives to the basket were timely more than anything. He's a freshman, a little more comfortable at home probably like all freshmen are."
Brown, who finished with 12 points and 12 assists in the loss, also noted the difference the announced crowd of 21,750 made Saturday.
"They had a home court advantage," Brown said. "They had their fans going, and we got caught up in that."
NC State was led by Wood. He finished with 19 points and like Bullock made 5 of 12 three-pointers. He back-to-back treys with 11:49 to go gave State a 49-45 lead, its largest of the game. They would be Wood's last points of the game.
Howell also had a double-double, collecting 13 points and 17 rebounds. Not having his best game however was junior forward C.J. Leslie.
Leslie had six first half turnovers, and finished with just six points and four boards while making only 3 of 8 shots and misfiring on all four free throw attempts.
"I'm not concerned," Gottfried said about Leslie. "He's a great player, and great players got to step up and play, period. I love him as much as anybody. When you're a good player, then you got to play better.
"Richard gets 17 rebounds today. Are we expecting Richard to get 30 rebounds? Holy mackerel, somebody else has got to rebound the ball. Calvin has to step up, period."
With Leslie struggling to take care of the ball in the first half, the Pack found itself down 34-28 at the break largely because as a team they had a total of 12 turnovers, and UNC owned a 16-2 edge in points off turnovers at halftime.
"That's tough to overcome," Gottfried said. "Those are possessions where you are not getting shots at the basket."
Carolina started the second half strong, scoring six of the first eight points to take a 40-30 lead with 17:27 remaining after a dunk by sophomore wing P.J. Hairston.
State then made its run. Sparked by three three-pointers from Wood, one to begin its run and the last two to finish it off, NC State reeled off a 19-5 stretch to take a 49-45 lead.
"We felt like we had good control of the game," Howell noted. "We felt like we had it bottled up. We thought the game was over.
"We got to keep our foot on the pedal the whole game. We can't just fall back and let them kind of ease back into the game."
Despite the setback, Gottfried and Brown both remained upbeat about their team.
"No concern at all, it was a great game," Brown said. "They came out and played hard as they should at home and we came out and played our best. It came down to hitting shots, and we couldn't do that."
"I liked the way our guys competed," Gottfried added. "We were up four, and I think at about the eight-minute mark we were up three, and we had that four-minute stretch. We can beat ourselves up, which we probably will, but at the end up the day we correct some things and get better at some things and we could have had a different outcome today."