RALEIGH, N.C. -- It was almost the perfect afternoon for NC State on this Play 4Kay weekend. A crowd of 8,114 was on hand at Reynolds Coliseum. The Wolfpack women were playing the team that -- to them -- is their chief rival: North Carolina.
NC State was hitting the boards hard, making hustle plays, getting to the foul line, and mostly avoiding turnovers.
"I felt like we played one of our best games," Wolfpack senior Kody Burke said.
And yet the day ended up still only almost perfect for Burke's squad. Because even with this strong of an effort from NC State, it still was not quite enough. The No. 10 Wolfpack fell to No. 17 North Carolina 89-82.
It was an upset rankings-wise, but considering how both teams were projected to do this year, the Tar Heels seemed to be the favorites for this matchup. It was a gutsy effort by the pink-clad Wolfpack that ultimately was thwarted by sheer talent from UNC.
If you think you saw the best of Tar Heels rookie guard Diamond DeShields in North Carolina's victory over Duke last Monday night, she had more in her bag of tricks for Sunday's matinee and her first visit to Reynolds.
DeShields set a North Carolina single-game freshman scoring record with 38 points. That topped the 30 points she had last Monday in the Tar Heels' victory at Duke.
And it's not as if the Wolfpack didn't throw virtually everything they could think of defensively at DeShields. They really did. And afterward, NC State coach Wes Moore lamented he didn't try a few other options.
But as Burke put it succinctly: "Carolina is just a tough team. It's hard to say what we did wrong."
On a relatively warm Sunday afternoon just a few days after the region had been nearly paralyzed by snow, the crowd that came out to see the Wolfpack and Tar Heels got to watch a team led mostly by experienced seniors versus a young group with vast horizons.
Funny thing is, a week ago Sunday, the Tar Heels were sitting on a three-game losing streak and facing three games in seven-day span. At that point, one could reasonably have asked if the season potentially was slipping away from a UNC squad that has dealt with the absence of longtime coach Sylvia Hatchell, who is battling leukemia.
Then again, those three losses were by a combined 11 points. But two of them were at home in Carmichael Arena. So ... what were we to make of North Carolina? It was fair to wonder going into Monday's game at Duke if the Tar Heels were standing on the edge of hill, about to tumble.
Instead, Duke got shoved, while the Tar Heels seem to have found solid footing. North Carolina beat the Blue Devils 89-78 behind 12 3-pointers. It was like, "OK, these are the Tar Heels that everyone has been dreading."
Now, two more victories later for the Tar Heels -- sandwiched between the games with their Triangle rivals was a 36-point pounding of Pittsburgh -- the question is: Hmmm, might the youngsters from Chapel Hill give undefeated Notre Dame a run for its money in South Bend on Feb. 27?
"They've all bought in," said Andrew Calder, Hatchell's longtime assistant who is the bench coach in her stead. "They've been talented from the beginning. But obviously [they're] learning to play together more and more.
"They look for Diamond. ... They set great screens and got her open. I think we've practiced extremely hard, and we've played hard."
But the Wolfpack -- who were picked to finish 10th in the ACC under Moore, while Carolina was picked fouth -- also played very hard Sunday. That has been a consistent characteristic of this team under Moore, in his first season in Raleigh after a lot of success at Chattanooga.
"I was pleased with our kids' effort," Moore said. "But DeShields was phenomenal. That was the key. They hit 13 3s, and we hit five. But we're not playing H-O-R-S-E -- we had an opportunity to guard them and just didn't get it done."
That's because it's so hard to get it done. The Tar Heels' ability to hit perimeter shots, combined with the athleticism and quickness gives defenses so much to worry about.
"All five of their starters are great offensive players," said Burke, who led NC State with 18 points. "Good offense can beat good defense on a good night, and I feel like that's what happened."
Moore agreed; he felt pretty happy about his own offense producing 82 points. But for every big shot the Wolfpack hit, the Tar Heels -- particularly DeShields and fellow freshman Allisha Gray, who had 18 points -- came back with a basket that was just as big.
As far as the atmosphere, everybody was a winner. The crowd was loud and engaged, the players clearly fed off of that. The late Kay Yow, an iconic figure at NC State, would have been proud to see it.
"Everybody in the country now is participating in the Play 4Kay games," Moore said. "But nobody else plays on the court that has her name on it, and where she won hundreds of games. So it's a little bit more special, I think, here. And the fans make it that way. They were awesome."