Does Wolfpack Bring Out the Best in UNC or Does UNC Bring Out the Worst in State?
CHAPEL HILL -- The North Carolina basketball team has won exactly two games in the past month.
Both have come against NC State.
While the Tar Heels have been the worst team in the ACC against everybody else, including seven straight losses between the bookend victories, they're like a bull to a matador's cape when they see the sight of the Wolfpack's red uniforms.
After UNC's 85-79 victory against the Wolfpack at Smith Center on Tuesday -- its 32nd win in the last 35 meetings between the rivals -- the question must be asked:
Does State bring out the best in the Tar Heels? Or does UNC simply bring out the worst in the Wolfpack?
"It’s very disappointing because I’ve said this all along, my guys competed," coach Kevin Keatts said after the game, which dropped his team to 17-11 overall (8-9 ACC) and put its NCAA tournament hopes in serious jeopardy. "I mean, we played. But we didn’t do all the right stuff at the right time."
That's the way it usually works when the Wolfpack plays the Tar Heels.
The names, faces and venues don't seem to matter. Whether it's Marcus Paige going off for 35 at PNC, Luke Maye scoring 30-plus points everywhere or now Garrison Brooks becoming the second coming of Tyler Hansbrough in both games this season, somebody in powder blue always seems to have a career night every time the teams play.
Tuesday, another twist was thrown into the equation.
A UNC team that hasn't been able to hold onto big leads all season and has seemed to find new ways to lose close games every time out suddenly developed some resolve in holding off a late charge that saw State trim an 11-point deficit down to a single possession with just over a minute remaining.
Afterward, Tar Heels freshman guard Cole Anthony couldn't help but throw out a little shade at the Wolfpack by making reference to the tired old "not our rival" narrative.
"It isn't really much of a rivarly," he said. "Just one side wins."
An argument can be made that the Tar Heels have taken up permanent residence inside the collective heads of the Wolfpack.
But current team members aren't ready to buy that premise.
"No, not really," redshirt senior wing C.J. Bryce said. "It’s all within the game. They came out with a great win tonight. It’s over now."
"Not on me," added senior point guard Markell Johnson, who led State with 21 points and 10 assists on Tuesday. "It’s basketball. You win some, you lose some."
This latest loss couldn't have come at a worse time for the Wolfpack.
Although the all-too-familiar, but just-as-painful-as-always result didn't end State's NCAA tournament chances, it made the task of getting into the field of 68 that much more complicated.
Johnson, however, said that he and his teammates are more focused on the opportunities they still have left over the final three games of the regular season -- at home on Saturday against Pittsburgh, then next week at Duke and home against Wake Forest -- than the opportunities that have already passed them by.
Asked directly if he thought the Wolfpack is still an NCAA tournament team, Johnson answered decisively.
"Definitely. Definitely," he said. "We’ve got three games left. We’re just going to try to go out and win all three."
The good news is that none of those three are against UNC.