Carolina Blue Continues to be Wolfpack Kryptonite
North Carolina star Cole Anthony didn't make his triumphant return to the court at the expense of NC State on Monday, as so many Wolfpack fans had feared.
But it didn't really matter.
When it comes to its basketball rivalry against the Tar Heels, Carolina blue continues to be the Wolfpack's kryptonite.
If ever there was an occasion in which State should finally have gotten the better of Roy Williams and his injury-riddled team -- which the Hall of Fame coach described earlier this season as the "least gifted" he's had at UNC -- this was it.
But as usually happens when these teams get together, State found a way to bring out the best in the Tar Heels.
This time the final was 75-65 at PNC Arena, the Wolfpack's fourth straight loss in the series and by far the most damaging result of a 2019-20 season that is rapidly reaching a crossroads at the midway point of the ACC schedule.
"Give those guys a lot of credit," coach Kevin Keatts said of the Tar Heels, who have now won two in a row since snapping their five-game losing streak. "We've got to get a lot tougher. Some of my better players are not playing very good basketball, meaning that we're not shooting the ball well. When you look at us from the 3-point line we were 4 for 20. That's not a good formula for us to be successful, no matter who we're playing."
Because of who State was playing only made the sting of this loss just a little worse.
The Wolfpack hasn't beaten the Tar Heels at home since 2013 and have now dropped 17 of the last 21 meetings at PNC Arena. At 14-7 overall (5-5 ACC) with the toughest part of its schedule still to come, State is suddenly in danger of missing out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
"We've got to get get better," Keatts said. "I'll take that as a coach. We're halfway through our season. We're 5-5 in the ACC. Obviously we've got 10 games left and we've got to figure it out pretty quick."
The list of things Keatts and his team need to work on between now and their next game, Saturday at home against Louisville, is a lengthy one.
It starts with finding a way to regain the grit that pulled the Wolfpack through to an improbable victory at Virginia exactly one week ago.
Since then, playing against two teams that came into the game with losing records, the Wolfpack has inexplicably lost its aggressiveness and focus -- not to mention its shooting touch.
The most egregious example of that is C.J. Bryce.
State's leading scorer was shut out for the second straight game. He was 0 for 8 from the floor against UNC (0 for 3 from 3-point range) and has missed 12 straight field goal attempts since his clinching basket in the final seconds of that win at Charlottesville.
"I've just got to get back going," Bryce said. "The shots I usually make are just not going right now."
While Keatts said he's at a loss to explain what's happened to his redshirt senior wing, the effect of Bryce's dry spell on the Wolfpack has been obvious.
"C.J.'s a big part of who we are," Keatts said. "We'd become so reliant on him and then when you take away his 15-16 points, we're a totally different team."
And it's not just because of the shooting.
While the Wolfpack went just 4 of 20 from 3-point range Monday -- misfiring on 10 of its 11 attempts in the second half -- it was a series of smaller mistakes that helped create the big problem against the Tar Heels.
Things such as failing to box out on a missed free throw in the final seconds of the first half, as Danny Dixon did in allowing Garrison Brooks to grab a rebound and score for what amounted to a pivotal four-point play.
It gave the Tar Heels a 39-35 lead at the break and momentum that they carried over into the second half.
The margin eventually grew to double digits before the Wolfpack finally started to battle back. State managed to get within four, at 65-61 on a fastbreak dunk by Devon Daniels with 6:36 remaining.
But it could never get any closer, in large measure because it couldn't seem to get any stops on the defensive end.
In one damaging stretch, the graduate transfer duo of Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce -- who have done little to nothing for the 10-10 (3-6) Tar Heels all season -- combined to score seven straight points to keep the Wolfpack at arms length.
Later in the second half, another light-scoring UNC player -- Andrew Platek -- hit a jump shot that bounced on the rim three times before going in only moments after State's Manny Bates -- playing for the first time since taking a blow to the head against Clemson three games ago -- missed an uncontested layup underneath.
The main culprit in the Wolfpack's demise, however, was Brooks.
Keatts originally tried to guard the 6-foot-9 junior with the smaller Jericole Hellems, but that didn't go well.
Not only was Brooks able to post Hellems up and score at will, but he also got the Wolfpack forward in early foul trouble. He played only 14 minutes, finishing with 10 points.
Things didn't get any better even after 6-11 freshman Manny Bates came off the bench in his first appearance since taking a blow to the back of his head two games ago.
State simply had no answers for Brooks, who went 11 of 20 from the floor, had six of his 11 rebounds on the offensive end and finished with a game-high 25 points.
"He was just outworking us," said junior forward D.J. Funderburk, who led State with 18 points and eight rebounds, but also had his troubles trying to guard Brooks. "He had more energy than any of us. He was making great shots. Me, Manny, Cole ... whoever was guarding him, we just have to get tougher."
Toughness, or the lack of it, was a common theme in both the locker room and Keatts' postgame press conference after another all-too-familar loss to UNC.
"We're not clicking on all cylinders." Keatts said. "You would hope that you would be almost getting into February. But our issue is our issue.
"We've had some guys that have been out. It's part of the game, I understand. These are not excuses. But in order for us to get better I've got to get everybody back on the same page and back playing good basketball."