CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — You could feel the tide turning, and not just because N.C. State looked lost against the zone or because the fans who filled Carmichael Arena rose and sent a roar up to the girders above like it once always was. When there came a moment Sunday when one team understood what this rivalry really meant — felt the threat of losing more acutely — it was North Carolina.
N.C. State’s been the top dog — lupine — in women’s basketball around the Triangle for a long time, while both North Carolina and Duke lost touch with past glory and changed coaches, but the gap is smaller now than it’s ever been, if there even is one. It’s a three-team free-for-all now, with the 11th-ranked Wolfpack coming back to the pack and the 22nd-ranked Tar Heels and 16th-ranked Blue Devils on the rise, and there was no better representation of that than the way UNC pulled away Sunday.
On Thursday, the Tar Heels will host Duke. Sunday’s 56-47 win was their first sellout at Carmichael in just short of eight years. They may only have to wait four days for another.
“To have this many people care about the game, how lucky are we that we live 30 minutes from three schools that are ranked and that people care about?” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “This is my life’s work and you don’t want to do it in silence, because most of the work you do is in silence. And when you get these opportunities, you want them to be celebrated.
“To have that many fans there, I’m sure (N.C. State coach) Wes (Moore) said the same thing, win or lose, that was a win. A win for college basketball. We happened to be the team that won that game. I’m as thrilled as he is disappointed. But he’s not walking home feeling disappointed about the support this community has for women’s basketball.”
The spectacle drew not only as many fans as Carmichael can hold these days — officially, 6,319, with a healthy chunk of State fans among them — but athletic stars from all over campus and beyond: Mack Brown right in the front row, Drake Maye and other football players, RJ Davis and other basketball players, Roy Williams — although at this point in his retirement it’s only news when a basketball game is conducted and Williams isn’t there — and decades of UNC women’s basketball stars back in town for a reunion. (Marion Jones present, Sylvia Hatchell apparently not.)
“It’s a rivalry game and everybody comes out to play in this one,” said UNC’s Alyssa Ustby, who had 14 of her 18 rebounds in the second half. “It’s something special to have the alums here. It means a lot. They’ve played in big games like this as well. We knew in order to honor them, we need to come out and win.”
The presence of their predecessors may have helped reinforce just what this game meant, but North Carolina played like it needed no reminder. On the other side, Moore wasn’t so sure. So many of the players who helped build the Wolfpack program into a national power left after last season, which made the way that one ended all the more painful.
There are a few left, but Jada Boyd missed almost all of Sunday’s fourth quarter with a recurrence of a persistent ankle injury and the rest of the roster — which has now lost back-to-back games for the first time in almost three years — might not quite understand why these games matter so much the way the departed stars did.
“A kid’s been in your program four or five years, they get it,” Moore said. “They’ve been here. They’ve gone through the battles. Now you’ve got players coming from other programs, they probably don’t fully understand.”
Moore may be right, but it was hard to tell until the fourth quarter. There was no separation and no space for anyone. At times, it was hand-to-hand combat. Opponents collided with opponents. Teammates collided with teammates. No quarter was given and, to be blunt, few shots were made — the teams combined to miss their first 11 from the floor — until North Carolina got hot late. Destiny Adams scored all eight of her points in the final three minutes and change, and that ended up being just enough offense to get the Tar Heels over the line.
Neither team is where it hoped or expected to be in the standings — Duke leads the way in the ACC at 6-0 — which made the stakes even higher than they would otherwise be, which, given the current temperature of the rivalry, was already stratospherically high.
But North Carolina beat N.C. State for the first time in four tries, did it in a building packed with fans, will probably flip rankings with the Wolfpack and, for the moment, can claim the upper hand over a rival that’s held that position for a long time.