C.J. Leslie got off to such a slow start against rival North Carolina that his coach quickly yanked him from the game. He responded with a performance that might be a sign of further maturation from the talented sophomore.
Leslie had a career-high 24 points and 12 rebounds in North Carolina State's 86-74 loss to the No. 7 Tar Heels on Tuesday night, a strong performance against a front line featuring a pair of NBA prospects in John Henson and Tyler Zeller.
"It's not me, it's a team thing," the 6-foot-8 forward said. "We're all focusing in. We didn't pull out a win but we learned from each other."
It looked as if Leslie would be in for a long day when the Tar Heels hit their first three shots and jumped to a 10-2 lead on a 3-pointer from Kendall Marshall that prompted Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried to use a timeout.
During that stoppage, an animated Gottfried focused on Leslie, who appeared to try to walk away before his coach grabbed him by the arm and jerked him closer.
Gottfried sat Leslie for about 90 seconds. But Leslie returned and sparked the Wolfpack with 14 points and seven rebounds by halftime.
That included a driving basket that tied the game at 30, though the Tar Heels led 46-41 at halftime and increased the lead through the second half.
"I thought he started slow defensively," Gottfried said. "I took him out, told him exactly what I thought, he responded and I thought played terrific."
For North Carolina, Marshall had a career-high 22 points and 13 assists.
Harrison Barnes added 20 points for the Tar Heels (24-4, 11-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who extended their domination of their nearby rivals. North Carolina has won 12 straight meetings and hasn't lost to the Wolfpack (18-10, 7-6) in five years.
The Tar Heels shot 51 percent, including 10 for 19 from 3-point range. And Marshall was a big reason for that success, whether he was knocking down outside shots against sagging defenders or finding teammates for baskets.
The pass-first point guard came in with just three double-digit scoring games all season, but went 7 for 8 from the field and 4 for 5 from behind the arc to provide an unexpected burst of offense.
Marshall also hit all four of his free throws and had no turnovers in 38 minutes.
Playing in front of a rowdy home crowd, the Wolfpack fought back from an early 14-point deficit in the first half and trailed by just five at halftime.
The Tar Heels quickly pushed the margin back to double figures after the break. Then, with the Wolfpack within seven, the Tar Heels ran off nine straight points to take a 71-55 lead on Barnes' jumper over C.J. Williams with 8:18 left.
Marshall followed that with another 3 for the Tar Heels' largest lead at 74-56 with 7½ minutes left — signaling yet another UNC win in the series.
The Tar Heels had won the past 11 games by an average of nearly 16 points per game. That included the first meeting in Chapel Hill last month, when the Tar Heels dominated the entire way and led by 31 points in the second half of a 74-55 win.
It wasn't quite as easy this time around. Then again, the Tar Heels remained in firm control of this one, turning away several spurts by the Wolfpack and playing from in front almost all night before stretching the lead out in the final 11 minutes.
N.C. State has lost to Duke, Florida State and North Carolina in the past week, the three teams that entered the week leading the ACC standings. This might've been the Wolfpack's last chance for a marquee win to help its NCAA tournament chances.