RALEIGH, N.C. -- The pressure increased with every loss for North Carolina. So too did the questions about what went wrong and why the defending national champions looked so lost.
Imagine what would have happened had the Tar Heels not beaten rival North Carolina State on Tuesday night.
"We had no other option but to win," senior Deon Thompson said after North Carolina's 77-63 victory. "I don't even want to think about it."
Thompson scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels (13-7, 2/3 Atlantic Coast Conference), who entered on their first three-game skid under coach Roy Williams. They fell from the national rankings during their longest slide since losing five straight nearly seven years ago under Matt Doherty, a period that feels like a lifetime ago for a program that since has won two national championships and reached three Final Fours.
And yet, these Tar Heels -- who have matched their loss total from the previous two seasons combined -- looked, well, desperate.
"We didn't want four losses in a row," said freshman Dexter Strickland, who had 14 points. "That would have been horrible. We just got sick of losing and we just played our behinds off tonight."
Larry Drew II had 18 points and seven assists for the Tar Heels, who also earned their first road win -- something they desperately needed if they have any hopes of regrouping in the final month of the regular season.
North Carolina shot 51 percent and showed some of the fast-paced transition offense that has been missing this season. But the game turned when the Tar Heels held the Wolfpack (13-8, 2-5) scoreless for more than 8 minutes in the second half, helping the Tar Heels build a 17-point lead in front of a stunned crowd.
The Wolfpack had upset Duke last week by shooting 58 percent for the game, but shot just 29 percent after halftime against the Tar Heels.
It was North Carolina's toughest and most composed performance since the second half of its win against Virginia Tech more than two weeks ago. The Tar Heels didn't panic when Javi Gonzalez scored 15 of his 19 points in 4 1/2 minutes to help the Wolfpack erase an early nine-point deficit and go ahead by five early in the second half. Nor did they look rattled by the hostile environment, using a 22-4 run to build a big lead that would ultimately reach 66-49 on Ed Davis' layup with 3:58 left.
"We got that (fight) Saturday and Sunday in practice," Williams said. "I tried to make it as competitive as it can be and I wasn't very nice to them and they answered. They really did. I got on them a good bit after practice (Monday). But I think the toughness was there."
Tracy Smith scored 20 points for the Wolfpack, whose fans were eager for the struggling Tar Heels to come to Raleigh despite N.C. State's lopsided loss at Maryland over the weekend. But North Carolina improved to 13-1 against N.C. State under Williams, 6-1 in Raleigh.
Davis, whose status was in doubt due to an ankle injury, had 12 points and nine rebounds while taking the lead on Smith inside. Smith was swarmed by blue shirts much of the night and had two of his shots blocked by freshman John Henson on helpside defense.
"They did a nice job, but I don't think we did a good job of getting the ball to Tracy," N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said. I felt that perimeter-wise we were very hesitant. There were several times he was wide open and we didn't deliver the basketball. That's a problem."
That put more pressure on the Wolfpack's perimeter, and -- outside of Gonzalez's flurry -- those players didn't respond. Freshman Scott Wood (three points), Dennis Horner (six points) and Farnold Degand (seven points) didn't offer much help, combining to go 5 for 24 on the night.
"We couldn't throw nothing in the ocean," said Wood, who was 1 for 8 from 3-point range.
Gonzalez's tip-in gave the Wolfpack a 43-38 lead, but North Carolina's defense locked in and gave the Tar Heels' offense a chance to build some momentum.
They tied the game on Thompson's turnaround with 13:30 left, then pushed ahead for good on Strickland's layup by two defenders a minute later. Next came a scooping layup from Henson, a dunk from Strickland off a turnover and then Thompson's rim-rattling dunk that had the North Carolina bench jumping in cheers.
Suddenly, North Carolina led 51-43 with 10 minutes left. While Smith scored to end the long drought, the lead only grew from there.