CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- So this is what North Carolina is reduced to: a feeling of relief after beating a rival it hasn't lost to in three years.
Larry Drew II had 15 points and the Tar Heels pulled away late to beat North Carolina State 74-61 on Saturday, snapping their four-game losing streak while earning an eighth straight win against the Wolfpack.
Deon Thompson added 12 points for the Tar Heels (14-11, 3-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), who won for the first time since beating the Wolfpack nearly three weeks ago in Raleigh. It was also their first home win since beating Virginia Tech a month ago, snapping another four-game skid.
But of all the ugly streaks and stats that are following the defending national champions this season, one fact stood out. The victory kept the preseason co-ACC favorite from falling into last place in the league standings with just a handful of games left.
"We already know we're down and we're in a pretty deep hole," Thompson said. "You've just got to continue to fight and continue to bring that effort and energy, and at the end of the day anything can happen."
The Tar Heels didn't have to look far for a reminder of what's gone wrong this year. Aside from the unusual sight of numerous empty seats in the upper level of the Smith Center for a rivalry game, three injured big men -- Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and freshman Travis Wear -- stood near midcourt wearing dark suits and watching what's left of the team warm up.
Perhaps North Carolina's players gained extra motivation from seeing more than 200 former players in the stands. They were in town for a reunion weekend as part of the storied program's yearlong celebration of its centennial season. The school honored the players -- by name, no less -- when they filed onto the court at halftime in a ceremony that ended with retired Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith joining them at midcourt.
Or maybe the Tar Heels just needed to see N.C. State (14-12, 2-9) on the other sideline again. When the teams last met Jan. 26, Thompson scored 20 points to help the Tar Heels snap a three-game losing streak that at the time was the longest under coach Roy Williams.
After this win, the team took a moment before walking off the court to gather and acknowledge the former players.
"Coach was saying, 'Finish it off," said freshman John Henson, who flirted with a double-double in his first career start in Davis' place. "It was a great weekend, and we had to do our part to make this weekend enjoyable."
At least the Tar Heels proved they're not quitting on a miserable season. They had lost eight of 10 games since the start of 2010, including Wednesday's 64-54 loss to rival Duke that ranked as their lowest scoring performance in seven seasons under Williams. Then came news that Davis -- the team's No. 2 scorer and top rebounder -- might miss the rest of the season after breaking his left wrist against the Blue Devils.
Henson, a lanky 6-foot-10 forward, had looked lost after starting the season at small forward, but he has shown progress since moving to power forward. He came through with nine points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals in a season-high 26 minutes against N.C. State, and even soared into the paint to stuff home a missed shot by Thompson for the game's first basket.
It was Drew, however, who finished off the Wolfpack. The Tar Heels led by two at halftime and maintained control for the entire second half before Drew scored seven straight points that pushed North Carolina's lead to 66-54 with 2:05 left.
North Carolina shot 42 percent, but helped itself by taking a 44-32 rebounding advantage and converting 17 offensive boards into 17 second-chance points. It also committed just three second-half turnovers.
"You play every day to try to get better," Williams said, "and I think we have gotten better but it hasn't shown up in the final score. Today it did."
Now the dishonor of sitting alone in last falls to N.C. State, which lost its fourth straight game overall.
Tracy Smith scored 20 points to lead the Wolfpack and Javi Gonzalez added 13, but they got little help. Senior Dennis Horner, the team's second-leading scorer at 12 points per game, finished with two points and one rebound in 24 minutes.
"I'm not sure this program is ever really down," Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said of North Carolina. "They have struggled a little bit as (Williams) said to me, but there's a lot of pride here and a lot of tradition here."
Before the game, the Tar Heels honored Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, the backcourt duo who helped the team win last year's national championship before entering the NBA draft as juniors. Their jerseys will hang among 38 that are honored, but not retired, in the Smith Center rafters.
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