By Adam Lucas
It’s NC State week, so you know what that means for Roy Williams.
“He gets fired up every time we play them,” Theo Pinson said after the last time the Tar Heels faced the Wolfpack, a 51-point victory in Chapel Hill. “There’s a certain spark he has when we play NC State…You can just tell by his voice. He wants our execution to be perfect because it’s NC State.”
That approach has worked, as Carolina has enjoyed significant success against NC State in the Williams era. The last NCSU win in the series in Raleigh came in 2013, and Carolina has won 20 of the last 22 meetings between the two Triangle squads.
With such a dramatic edge in the series, why does Williams still get so amped to play the Wolfpack? It’s because his formative years as a Tar Heel came in a very different time in Carolina-State history.
Williams arrived in Chapel Hill as an undergraduate in the fall of 1968. Those were good Tar Heel basketball times, as Dean Smith directed the program to three straight Final Fours. Carolina eventually stretched out a 10-game winning streak over the Pack that was snapped in December of 1970. This was an era when it wasn’t unusual for Carolina and State to play three times during the regular season, with a pair of ACC meetings plus a Big Four Tournament contest in Greensboro.
That’s where the series turned, as the Pack took a victory in December of 1970. And after four more Carolina wins, Norm Sloan’s team won the final UNC-NCSU game of Williams’ undergrad career, an 85-84 upset in Reynolds Coliseum of the fifth-ranked Tar Heels, and then proceeded to win a total of nine games in a row against their hated foes from Chapel Hill.
Think of the opponents that were the fiercest opponents during your most impressionable years as a fan. If you went to school in the early 1980s, perhaps it’s Virginia. In the mid to late 1990s, it might be Maryland or Wake Forest. For the last couple of decades, of course, it’s been Duke.
But in the early 1970s, it was NC State. Williams returned to Carolina as an assistant coach in the fall of 1978. His first Carolina-State game on the bench was the legendary “Dudley Bradley stole the ball!” game in 1979 at Reynolds, a one-point Tar Heel win in a top-15 showdown (you really need to watch the highlights to appreciate how incredible it was, as State had come back from a 40-17 halftime deficit and was poised to win the game, only to have Bradley snatch it away and the Tar Heels run off the court victorious while being pelted with debris).
Much of NC State’s success during the rivalry was built on the talent of David Thompson, one of the best players in ACC history and a Wolfpack standout for three seasons, including the program’s first national title in 1974. But soon Smith would have a standout of his own—Phil Ford, who enrolled at Carolina in the fall of 1974 after picking Carolina over State.
The point guard quickly turned the momentum in the series. He struggled in his first meeting with State, as the top-ranked Wolfpack took an 82-67 decision in the Big Four tournament. In the next meeting, at Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack needed overtime to escape with an 88-85 win.
Finally, three years of frustration was released in Carmichael Auditorium on Feb. 25, 1975. Carolina sprinted to an 11-point lead behind 19 first-half points from Ford. The early advantage gave Smith the opportunity to turn the game over to Ford and the Four Corners for almost 18 minutes of the second half. Even Thompson’s 32-point, eight-rebound performance couldn’t bring State all the way back. Mickey Bell hit a clutch free throw for the Tar Heels with 29 seconds remaining to provide the final 76-74 margin of victory. Fans unfurled a section-wide banner that read, “The Streak Stops Here.”
“That was huge for the confidence of our young team,” said Ford, who scored 22 points before fouling out. “For us to beat them was a turning point.”
“We had struggled against them,” said John Kuester, who contributed five points to the win. “But what we had my sophomore year was terrific mental toughness. We had Phil and Walter (Davis) and younger players who could play at a high level against David Thompson and Monte Towe. But our biggest edge was Dean Smith. When you had Dean Smith on your side, that was the difference.”
During Williams' ten seasons as an assistant, the two teams played nine games when both teams were ranked in the national top 20. In the nearly 30 years since then, there have been just three such games.
But he still treats the series with the reverence of a 1970s undergrad. Tomorrow night, he’ll journey to Raleigh to face Dennis Smith Jr. and Terry Henderson and Maverick Rowan. You’ll have to forgive him if he still sees Thompson and Monte Towe and Tom Burleson.