Friedlander: Events during and after Saturday's game add new dynamic to UNC-NC State rivalry
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It takes more than geography to make a rivalry.
Take the most storied 1 in college basketball and perhaps all sports.
North Carolina and Duke are located only 8 miles apart. But the decades of bad blood that exist between them can be traced to a single incident back in 1961.
It started when star recruit Art Heyman flipped from the Tar Heels to the Blue Devils under curious circumstances and boiled over when Heyman fouled UNC’s Larry Brown — yes, that Larry Brown — under the basket, sparking a bench-clearing brawl.
I bring this up only because it relates to what happened on the court at Smith Center on Saturday.
UNC beat NC State, 80-69, which in and of itself is nothing out of the ordinary.
The Tar Heels (14-6, 6-3 ACC) have now won 4 straight against their neighbors from a half hour down the road in Raleigh, 9 out of the past 10 and are 35-5 against them over the past 40 meetings dating to 2003. It’s a domination that prompted UNC fans to taunt the Wolfpack (15-5, 5-4) a few years back with chants of “Not our rival.”
And that wasn’t entirely an exaggeration. At least from their perspective.
But it didn’t feel like that on Saturday. Beyond the final score, this game had a much different feel than most of those others.
A much darker feel.
The feel of a rivalry.
And not just because the schools are located so close together and are part of the same university system.
It wasn’t anything close to the Heyman-Brown spark that kindled the rivalry with Duke. No punches were thrown. Nobody left the bench. In anger, at least.
The potential turning point in the dynamic of the rivalry between the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took place with 9:45 remaining in the 2nd half.
UNC had just reeled off a 14-5 spurt to turn a precarious 1-point lead into a 59-49 cushion when State star Terquavion Smith, knowing his team needed a basket to stop the momentum, drove hard to the basket.
As he went up for his shot, Smith was sent crashing to the floor by Leaky Black, the Tar Heels’ best defensive player. The impact was audible above the din of 21,750 fans in the stands.
And the sophomore guard didn’t get up. He was eventually taken from the floor on a backboard and transported to UNC Hospitals with what is being described as a “elbow and neck injury.”
Photo of the Leaky Black foul on Terquavion Smith.
— Cory Smith (@RCorySmith) January 22, 2023
Smith’s teammates were divided on how to describe the play that could ultimately have a disastrous impact on what was shaping up as a promising season.
Jarkel Joiner said he didn’t think Black did anything to intentionally injure Smith. Casey Morsell countered, however, that “it was obviously a dirty play. It wasn’t necessary.”
Black was assessed a Flagrant 2 technical and ejected from the game.
The bad blood didn’t end there though.
What was already an intensely physical game — 1 in which State was called for 27 fouls, leading to a 39-12 UNC advantage in free throw attempts — got even more chippy a few minutes later.
This time, it was Morsell that delivered the blow. He was handed a Flagrant 1 technical for smacking UNC’s Caleb Love in the nose with his free hand as he drove to the basket, sending Love to the floor in pain.
“There were 2 back-to-back hard fouls,” Love said. “That’s just how the game was going.”
It wasn’t an accident, said Tar Heels forward Pete Nance, a transfer from Northwestern playing in his 1st game against either of his school’s 2 fellow Triangle antagonists.
“Everybody was really gunned up for this game,” he said.
Some of that likely stems from the fact that State came to Chapel Hill ranked higher in the NCAA’s NET rankings, was riding a 4-game winning streak and represented a legitimate threat to Nance and his teammates. You could feel it from the crowd as well.
If everyone involved was “gunned up” at the start, the temperature was only turned up because of the events that took place during the game.
And the postgame.
Tar Heels star Armando Bacot poured just a little extra fuel on the fire during his session with the media.
— Carolina Blitz (@KeepBlitzin) January 22, 2023
He had every reason to celebrate after recording his school-record 61st career double-double — a 23-point, 18-rebound effort that also helped him pass Tyler Hansbrough to become UNC’s all-time leading rebounder. But the fact that he did it wearing a pair of sunglasses made a statement that went far beyond his performance.
It was a direct reference to a pair of viral videos involving State players over the past couple of weeks.
The 1st was one of big man D.J. Burns dancing in the locker room with shades on after a recent win at Virginia Tech. The other featured Smith, also wearing sunglasses, commenting after last Saturday’s home win against Miami.
“I feel like other colleges in N.C. feel like they’re better than us because they wear blue, but I just want people to know that you can come here, too,” Smith said. “They do the same stuff we do, they just have different courses.”
In any other context, Bacot’s fashion statement would have been all in fun, the kind of thing that a rival does to stick it to the guys on the other side after an emotional win. Given the context of what happened beyond the scoreboard on Saturday — and judging from the outrage of Wolfpack fans on social media — it could very well turn out to be the spark that takes the rivalry between State and UNC to another level.
One that has been missing for a long time.
The teams play again in Raleigh on Feb. 19.
You might want to circle the date.