CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina, with its veteran big men Armando Bacot and Brady Manek, came into Saturday’s matchup at Smith Center with a decided edge inside against NC State’s young, thin frontcourt.
But while both took advantage of the mismatch to put up big numbers, especially Bacot with 18 points and 13 rebounds, it was the Tar Heels’ suspect outside game that helped send the Wolfpack to a frustrating 100-80 defeat.
UNC made 15 3-pointers while shooting a blistering 55.6% from beyond the arc on the way to a result that was even more lopsided than the final 20-point margin indicates.
“We came into the game saying Bacot’s averaging almost 19 points and 13 rebounds. We were prepared to double him if we had to,” State coach Kevin Keatts said after his team fell to 10-12 overall (3-8 ACC). “We knew that we may have to give up some shots on that, but I’m telling you, they were really hot.
“I don’t know that they’ll shoot the ball that well again for the rest of the year. Coming in, the last few days, they really struggled to shoot the basketball. They made shots tonight. It was tough. Give them credit.”
UNC (15-6, 7-3) was coming off its worst shooting performance of the season on Wednesday in which it still managed to beat Boston College despite making only 29.1% of its field goal attempts.
Perhaps the Tar Heels were saving all their makes for their rival, because they were on target from start to finish against the Wolfpack.
They went 20 of 32 overall (62.5%) and 10 of 15 from 3-point range (66.7%) during a first half in which they ran up as much as a 30-point lead before going into the break with a 56-31 advantage.
Things didn’t get much better in the second half as Manek (five treys and 17 points), Caleb Love (four and 21) and R.J. Davis (three and 17) continued a barrage for which State had no answer defensively. UNC’s lead grew as big as 35 – at 73-38 with 14:53 remaining.
“They were hot on their homecourt. We couldn’t find a way to make them miss and you see the outcome,” said Wolfpack freshman, who teamed with senior Jericole Hellems to provide much of his team’s offense in the game.
Smith finished with a career-high 34 points. Hellems added 25.
The rest of the team, however, combined to score only 21 points. That includes a season-low two points on 1 of 6 shooting by Dereon Seabron, State’s leader in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Seabron’s strength is beating his man off the dribble and getting to the rim for baskets or dishes to open teammates on the perimeter. While he was able to accomplish the first part of that equation Saturday, he had trouble with the latter thanks to the long arms of Bacot in the lane.
The UNC center has six blocked shots. Even when he didn’t block shots, he altered many others.
The Tar Heels’ interior defense rendered Seabron so ineffective that Keatts only played him for three minutes in the second half.
“I just didn’t think he was playing well,” Keatts said. “He’s no different than any other player on our team. When you’re not playing good basketball, then somebody else gets the opportunity. He just didn’t have it tonight, for whatever reason.”
Despite its unsightly record in the ACC, Saturday’s loss was the first against a conference opponent in which the Wolfpack wasn’t in the game until the final few minutes.
As a result, Keatts is confident in his team’s ability to bounce back, starting with Wednesday’s home game against Syracuse.
But only if it tightens things up on the defensive end of the court.
“If you look at our three conference wins, one of the main denominator in all of those is that we defended,” Keatts said. “If we’re going to be successful with this team, our defense has to travel with us every time we play. If it doesn’t we’re going to struggle. We’re good enough offensively to play against anybody in the country because of our guard play. But at the end of the day you have to get stops.”