CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It looks like Dexter Strickland isn’t the only Tar Heel who can play defense.
With questions about North Carolina’s fortitude still lingering after a 33-point loss at Florida State earlier this month, and new concerns emerging after it lost its starting shooting guard/backup point guard to a torn ACL last week, No. 8 UNC showed it should be just fine -- thank you very much -- by blowing out NC State 74-55 on Thursday night.
And the Tar Heels did it in a way that paid homage to Strickland, widely considered their best shut-down defender.
They blocked eight shots. They held NC State to a season lows in points and shooting (36.8 percent).
“Up until this point, we weren’t really known as a defensive team,’’ said sophomore forward Harrison Barnes (15 points). “But I think that’s what we need to make our staple, now, going into the back end of ACC play.”
All year long, UNC coach Roy Williams has insisted this team had the ability to be “very good” defensively. But it wasn’t until the absence of Strickland in drills this week, his teammates said, that they really realized how much he did -- and how much more they could do.
“As a team, we knew we needed to step up collectively on defense,’’ point guard Kendall Marshall said.
With Strickland watching from the bench in a natty striped sweater, they did.
The Tar Heels led 17-14 about midway though the first half, but then they outscored the Wolfpack 20-9 to take a 37-23 lead into halftime. They flooded passing lanes; they swatted shots from the lane.
The Wolfpack seemed confounded by the overwhelming size of 6-foot-11 John Henson (nine points, 10 rebounds, five blocks) and 7-0 Tyler Zeller (21 points, career-high 17 rebounds) -- especially when State starting forward Richard Howell picked up three quick fouls early.
And the only reason they didn’t trail by more at the break was point guard Lorenzo Brown's 80-foot buzzer beater.
“They got after it defensively, we got a little flustered, we didn't play with poise like we had been the first 20 games of the season and they took us out of what we wanted to do,’’ Wolfpack forward C.J. Williams said.
New coach Mark Gottfried said that for the first time in his 21 games at NC State, a foe’s defensive pressure affected his team’s offensive composure.
“They took away one option and we didn’t have the wherewithal to stay with our offense and really grind out good shots,’’ he said.
Granted, the in-state rivalry had to add something to UNC’s intensity. State, under Gottfried, was off to its best start in six years. Tied for the ACC lead at the beginning of the week, the Wolfpack -- a balanced team featuring five starters that averaged double figures -- finally looked ready to make a run at their down-the-road foes.
Instead, the game marked UNC’s 11th straight win in the series, tying its longest streak of dominance over the Wolfpack (the Tar Heels also won 11 in a row from 1934 to '38).
“We definitely wanted to go out and show them that this was our home court, and that’s what we did,’’ Barnes said.
The Tar Heels shot 48.4 percent for the game; Bullock recorded 11 points, five rebounds and three assists as a starter; and freshman Stilman White, the new backup ballhandler now that Strickland is sidelined, had a 3-pointer, an assist and a foul in five minutes.
Coach Roy Williams wasn’t thrilled when UNC’s defensive intensity let up a bit in the second half, after the Tar Heels led by as many as 31 points. State shot 52 percent after halftime, when Wood also scored all of his team-high 11 points.
Marshall said the Tar Heels need to keep their defensive focus for 40 minutes, “but we’re getting there.”
He added: “I think we could have been a better team while he [Dexter] was here. We just didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. Moving forward now, I think we’re 4-1 [in the ACC], so we’ve got 11 more games where we can better ourselves.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.