RALEIGH — It started on the court, a spectacle before the disheartened crowd, and it spilled into the tunnels. They yelled and cheered and antagonized the hosts, gallivanting through the hallways at the expense of their rivals.
That was two weeks ago, when N.C. State stunned North Carolina in overtime, and it was a celebration they wouldn't soon forget. The Tar Heels wouldn't, either.
In the days leading up to Saturday's rematch, the UNC coaches attached an extra clip to the beginning of their pregame film session — one of the Wolfpack players openly celebrating in their building. As if this matchup didn't have enough bulletin board material, the video haunted the Tar Heels, their bitter enemies dancing through their minds in the hours before the game.
This was more than a rivalry — this was payback.
'We were a little pissed off, honestly," Kenny Williams said. "And I think it kind of showed on the court."
It was Williams' three-pointer with 1:13 left that served as the dagger in Saturday's 96-89 win over N.C. State, two days after No. 21 North Carolina bested No. 9 Duke in a Smith Center classic. The Tar Heels trailed in the second half of both games — but behind Luke Maye's career-high 33 points (including 27 in the second half) and a season-high 60 points in the paint, North Carolina took vengeance Saturday against a team that nearly derailed its season just 14 days prior.
Call it what you want: the Tar Heels (19-7, 8-5 ACC) played inspired against the Wolfpack (16-9, 6-6 ACC). After a 19-0 first-half run gave N.C. State a two-point halftime lead, North Carolina asserted its dominance in PNC Arena in the second half, shooting 78.1 percent and converting its final 10 attempts from the floor.
It was UNC's highest shooting percentage in a half under Roy Williams, who improved his record against N.C. State to 28-4 since becoming North Carolina's head coach in 2003.
"Needless to say that we feel a heck of a lot better right now than we did in Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago," Williams said.
In that game, the Wolfpack made 15 threes in a four-point overtime win as UNC fell apart late. On Saturday, N.C. State attempted just 13 threes — three after halftime — and the Tar Heels led for nearly the entire second half.
"We let our game talk today," said Joel Berry, who scored seven of his 16 points in the first eight minutes.
On Tuesday, it was Berry who did the talking — saying N.C. State wasn't a rival ahead of UNC's showdown with Duke. The reaction was as incendiary as the comment itself, with both fan bases engaging in a war of words that comically settled the issue on its own.
If it's not a rivalry, why does everybody keep talking about it?
"That's not my problem, that's their problem," Berry said Saturday, fit with a wry grin. "Maybe they can look back and say thank you. With me saying that, they probably sold more tickets."
He's probably right. A year after UNC fans split the seats in Raleigh for a 24-point Wolfpack loss, PNC Arena was drenched in red. Fans were armed with signs and jeers alike for Berry and his teammates, who all but turned a blind eye to the raucous crowd.
When the game started, though, the rivalry was in full bloom for both teams. Early in the first half, Berry and N.C. State guard Markell Johnson started jawing at one another before a referee intervened. Just before halftime, Sterling Manley swatted Wolfpack guard Allerik Freeman — who went 7-for-7 from three in Chapel Hill, a record by a UNC opponent — and served a few choice words after the whistle.
"We want to be the sheriffs," Manley said. "We want to be at the top."
Early in the second half, an N.C. State fan was ejected for making contact with and taunting UNC guard Brandon Robinson. And late in the game, after one of Maye's 15 made field goals (most under Williams), the soft-spoken junior threw his hands in the air in celebration and goaded the silenced Wolfpack crowd.
Oh, but this isn't a rivalry, right?
"We've got bigger things that we're looking at," Berry said. "We're trying to make a run."
The loss to N.C. State two weeks ago nearly ended all that. It wasn't the worst loss of the season — Wofford had already signed the year-long lease on that spot — but it might have been the most sobering. It ended a 15-game ACC home winning streak and revealed UNC's defensive deficiencies on the perimeter and inside.
It was arguably the low point of a three-game losing streak, bookended by losses at Virginia Tech and Clemson. And it had North Carolina fans questioning whether these defending champions could make any noise at all in this year's tournament.
Then, the Tar Heels restored hope after bludgeoning a hapless Pittsburgh team in Cam Johnson's reunion game. Then they beat Duke, remedying a rivalry that hadn't gone the way of this graduating class. And, for the first time since 1995, North Carolina had just two days before a date with N.C. State.
Rivalry or not, this game was crucial. A loss would have halted all momentum heading into Monday's home game against Notre Dame — UNC's third ACC contest in five days — and it would have secured N.C. State's first sweep since Williams came to Chapel Hill.
Instead, the Tar Heels are riding a three-game winning streak and look as dangerous as they have all year, with five games left in the regular season.
"I don't want to get complacent," Berry said. "I want this team to continue to get better and better."
After Saturday's win, the players were careful not to call this series what it is: a rivalry. Because that gives credence to the rivals, right? There's nothing more debilitating than pure dismissal.
But of course it is. The Tar Heels' insistence on not calling it one only fans the flames. So did the Wolfpack's boisterous celebration in the tunnels of the Smith Center. This is a rivalry at its best: petty, bitter and always entertaining.
As the Tar Heels say, though, Saturday was about payback. Not just for the celebration but for the humiliation, losing on their home court in the most crushing of ways.
After all, nothing fuels a rivalry more than revenge.