|Lorenzo Brown and the Wolfpack recover from a bad, bad loss to Wake Forest and hold off UNC. (US Presswire)|
RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State has yearned to own Tobacco Road ever since Jimmy V departed more than two decades ago. Instead, it's been an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, watching as Duke and North Carolina collected ACC titles, Final Four appearances and even national championships while Wolfpack fans spent much of the time complaining about their inability to knock off the local powers and advance in the NCAA tournament.
Well, the Wolfpack fans have bragging rights. Finally.
First came the win over top-ranked and then-undefeated Duke exactly two weeks ago, but that was just an appetizer. Just an order of buffalo wings or even a Caesar salad. The main course, the filet mignon, has always been North Carolina, and NC State feasted generously on the Tar Heels on Saturday night in a nationally televised game that was, as Roy Williams put it, a complete "butt-kicking."
The game was over at halftime. NC State took a 19-point lead into the break and was beating Carolina at its own game, pushing the ball and getting easy transition buckets. The Wolfpack had 20 fastbreak points in the first half and the Tar Heels didn't manage a single point in transition. Sure, UNC made the final margin respectable at the end, 91-83, but the outcome was never truly in doubt.
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The guy in the wheelchair didn't storm the court after the game. In fact, no one did. But that's not an indication of what this victory meant around these parts. These fans, these players and these coaches celebrated. Nobody more than those who put on the once-proud State jersey and have had to watch the complete domination in recent years .
"It's always the biggest game of the year," said David Thompson, the greatest player in the history of the program. "It's great to finally see us be competitive with them because that hasn't been the case for the last few years. That's why it's so big for us to beat them."
"It means everything," added Chris Corchiani, another ex-NC State star. "Our program hasn't arrived until it's beaten Carolina."
"Beating Duke at number one is a great feeling," chipped in another former player, Julius Hodge. "But this is way bigger."
This is the true rivalry.
But it's been completely one-sided ever since Roy Williams arrived from Lawrence, Kan., in 2003. Utter dominance. The Tar Heels have reeled off 13 consecutive wins and 19 of 20 in the Roy Era -- and the average margin of victory in the 19 victories is 13.2 points. The lone NC State win against Williams came on Feb. 3, 2007.
NC State was tapped to win the ACC in the preseason, but Mark Gottfried's team was coming off a three-game stretch in which it had lost to Maryland and Wake Forest on the road. Then it appeared as though he had lost his locker room after freshman T.J. Warren retweeted (basically copied) former player Thomas de Thaey's twitter message following the loss to Wake saying, "That's what happens when you're a great recruiter, but a terrible coach!"
However, NC State responded to the skepticism, improved to 16-4 with the victory and 5-2 in ACC play. Gottfried knows that his players need to be more consistent with their effort, and also realizes that the series hasn't turned with one victory. But he is able to comprehend the significance of the win against North Carolina, and it hit him this past summer while on a golf outing. A State fan came up to him and told him to beat North Carolina this season. Gottfried responded by posing the question whether he'd rather go to the Final Four and lose to UNC twice this season, or beat the Tar Heels twice and fail to advance to the Final Four.
"I'll have to think about it," the man told Gottfried.
That's why this one was so critical. It was huge for the current players because they felt a sense of pressure to rebound from the loss to the Demon Deacons, and was even more important for the fan base and former players to be able to maintain bragging right in the state. Sure, technically Wake Forest has in-state bragging rights. But that doesn't matter.
It's all about the Big Three these days.
Dexter Strickland fueled the rivalry when he provided the bulletin board material to me back in October.
“They talk those guys up every single year and we beat them every single year,” Strickland said. “They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can't put them in the mix.”
NC State was talking plenty on Saturday night as it nearly ran North Carolina out of the PNC Arena. Five players were in double-figures and the Wolfpack dominated their new rivals on the glass. Lorenzo Brown finished with 20 points and 11 assists, C.J. Leslie had 17 points and 10 boards, Richard Howell went for 16 points and 14 rebounds, T.J. Warren had 19 points and Scott Wood added a dozen.
Strickland stood up like a man and admitted NC State was clearly the better team on this night.
"People make mistakes," Brown said. "I think that was a mistake on his part. It fired all of us up."
Thompson won eight of his 10 meetings with North Carolina back when he was in school from 1972 to 1975. Julius Hodge got the Tar Heels four straight times to begin his career in the early 2000s before losing the final four. Over the last decade or so, it hasn't even been considered a rivalry.
"At some point, you have to change history," Gottfried said. "We still have a long way to go."
But they took one step tonight.