CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Everything seemed set up perfectly for North Carolina. The 11th-ranked Tar Heels had a huge lead against a longtime rival and would head into a matchup with Connecticut with a coach-pleasing victory.
Instead, the Tar Heels struggled to finish.
They blew nearly all of a 24-point lead in the second half before holding on to beat North Carolina State 83-76 on Friday night, which certainly wasn't what Sylvia Hatchell wanted to see from her team days before the two-time defending national champions arrive in Chapel Hill.
"They kept fighting out there and we got real lackadaisical and then let them come back," Hatchell said. "I'm happy for the win but not the way we lost our focus in the second half. ... We need to learn from this and get ready for Monday night because if we make some of the mistakes we made tonight [against UConn], then we will pay dearly for them."
Italee Lucas scored 19 points to lead the Tar Heels (16-1, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), while Chay Shegog added 13 points as North Carolina avenged last year's surprising home loss to the Wolfpack (9-8, 1-2). North Carolina used an 11-0 run to build a comfortable lead, led by 16 at halftime and increased that margin to 62-38 early in the second half.
And yet, the Tar Heels ended up having to make a couple of free throws -- and withstand a few missed desperate shots from N.C. State -- in the final minute to close this one out.
N.C. State scored 50 points in the second half, a bad sign for the Tar Heels as they prepare for the Huskies on Monday night.
"I think our team is ready," said fifth-year senior Jessica Breland, who had 10 points and nine rebounds. "We take every game we've had already and we learn from it and our mistakes. I feel it's going to be a great game."
Marissa Kastanek did everything possible to help the Wolfpack nearly complete a stunning comeback. The sophomore scored a career-high 30 points and hit six 3-pointers, the last of which pulled N.C. State to within five points with 17 seconds left.
"I just never quit," said Kastanek, who was sporting a black eye from her last game and left this one briefly in the first half after being hit in the mouth underneath the basket. "That's not something I've ever done and I think that the team in the locker room [at halftime] was like, 'We still have a chance.' "
Last season, N.C. State gave Kellie Harper a win in her first trip here as N.C. State's coach. The Wolfpack ended a six-game losing streak in the series and walked off the court with screams of delight as they celebrated the program's first win in Chapel Hill in six years.
It might have been one of the lowest moments for the Tar Heels in a frustrating year. But the Tar Heels have looked a lot more like themselves so far this season, and now that includes a 19th win in 22 meetings with their nearby rivals.
The Wolfpack wouldn't let the Tar Heels coast to the finish in the final 13 minutes. Kastanek's fifth 3 cut the lead to 65-56 with about 8½ minutes left before the Tar Heels answered with six straight points to push the margin back to 15.
N.C. State twice closed to within eight points in the final 4 minutes, then seven, then got a catch-and-shoot 3 from Kastanek to make it 81-76 with 17 seconds left.
N.C. State won't have to look far for reasons it fell so far behind. After scoring the game's first seven points, the Wolfpack went completely cold, missing 29 of 36 shots as the Tar Heels built their big lead. N.C. State finished the game shooting just 32 percent, with Amber White and Brittany Strachan combining for 10 points on 2-for-23 shooting.
"It's tough to play even with them, much less come back," Harper said. "I just wish we could have dialed in on our tempo earlier. That would've helped us."
The game even featured a bit of rivalry spice late in the first half. As Lucas buried a 3 for a 42-25 less than a minute before the break, Breland pushed N.C. State freshman Breezy Williams to the floor. Williams then tried to grab Breland's leg as the fifth-year senior ran by, and both players soon were soon chest to chest and jawing at each other before being separated by teammates and officials.
Both players were issued technical fouls.