It has never been easier, ever, for North Carolina in an ACC game than it was on Sunday against N.C. State – a 51-point victory that was the Tar Heels’ widest in an ACC game. And for a while here on Wednesday night during UNC’s 93-87 victory against Wake Forest, it looked easy enough again for the Tar Heels.
But that was before one Wake Forest comeback that made it a one-point game with a little less than 10 minutes to play and another rally, after the Tar Heels took control again, that made it a two-point game with a little less than four minutes to play. Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum has lost some its luster in recent years, some of its magic.
And yet it was its old, rocking self when the Demon Deacons made those charges. For UNC the circumstances on Wednesday contrasted those of Sunday, when the Wolfpack quickly folded after the Tar Heels’ initial blow. Not so here against Wake Forest, which improbably kept coming back … and back after UNC appeared well on its way.
During the last of its rallies, Wake Forest cut UNC’s lead – once 19 points large – to two points with less than four minutes remaining. The Tar Heels responded with a dunk from Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward who was playing with four fouls, and then with a jumper from Justin Jackson. Not long after Jackson, the junior wing forward, made a 3-pointer to give UNC an 87-81 lead with 63 seconds left.
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It was a dagger of a shot, and one Jackson has proved he’s comfortable making. He made not even 30 percent of his 3-point attempts a season ago. On Wednesday, he made three of his five 3-pointers, continuing his trend of successful perimeter shooting. After those makes, Jackson has now converted a little more than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
After Jackson’s final 3 Wake Forest, led by Bryant Crawford’s 22 points, never trailed by fewer than six points. Crawford, who fouled out, gave the Demon Deacons hope, and a chance, throughout the second half. With him on the court, Wake Forest outscored UNC by four points. For Wake, though, the problem was that Crawford was only on the court for 23 minutes.
Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels made it look easiest with him on the bench. And for a good while, it was easy for UNC – especially after the first few minutes.
The exhaust fumes then were still settling from Wake Forest’s pregame spectacle – the Demon Deacon mascot rides around the court revving a motorcycle, spreading the scent of gasoline moments before players begin sprinting up and down a court – when Wake scored the game’s first eight points.
Then UNC nearly doubled up the Demon Deacons the rest of the half, and the Tar Heels, taking advantage of Wake’s foul trouble, led by as many as 19 with 18 minutes to play. It wasn’t quite like Sunday, and the demolition against N.C. State, but for UNC it did, for a while, appear look like another runaway.
And then, quickly, it didn’t. Just when the Tar Heels appeared set to coast to another one-sided victory against a longtime in-state rival, Wake Forest, improbably, came back. The first rally began early in the second half, after UNC built that 57-38 lead.
There were 18 minutes remaining then. From there, though, Wake Forest went on a 27-9 run during the next eight minutes, a stretch in which the Demon Deacons whittled the Tar Heels’ lead to 66-65.
Crawford, then playing with three fouls, scored seven of his team’s point during that run. The Tar Heels responded to Wake’s initial rally and extended its lead back out to nine before Wake Forest came back, again, in the closing minutes. It reached a point, though, when the Tar Heels withstood the challenge, and when Wake Forest could come no closer.