Over the course of three halves and two minutes spread over Sunday and into Wednesday, North Carolina had outscored its opponents by 70 points. There was the 51-point victory over N.C. State on Sunday – a record-setting triumph – and then the 19-point lead on Wednesday night at Wake Forest.
The Tar Heels held that lead with about 18 minutes to play. The Lawrence Joel Coliseum, home to no shortage of bad memories for many an ACC team, was quiet then, non-intimidating. And UNC, which controlled the first half after the Demon Deacons scored the game’s first eight points, appeared on its way to another easy victory against an old in-state rival.
But then, Tar Heels junior forward Theo Pinson said later, “They did what they needed to do to get back into the game, and make it a game at the end.”
Pinson was speaking inside the Tar Heels’ locker room, where there was a sense of relief, yet accomplishment, after UNC’s 93-87 victory. The relief part was obvious enough: The Tar Heels twice rebuffed Wake Forest rallies – one of them that cut the lead to one with a little less than 10 minutes to play, and another that cut it to two with less than four minutes remaining.
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Then there was the other part: the sense of accomplishment.
UNC won on Sunday by 51 points, its largest margin of victory ever in an ACC game. That was helpful for the Tar Heels’ egos, perhaps, and that it came against N.C. State, a bitter rival, added to the moment. Yet here on Wednesday the Tar Heels won in an entirely different way, one they suspect will be beneficial in more stressful circumstances to come.
“It’s the ACC, and we can win by a lot and we can win by a little,” Joel Berry, the junior point guard, said Wednesday after he finished with 18 points. “But I think we need games like that, because it will help you on down the road when you get into a tough situation. …
“N.C. State, that game was all good. But to be able to win a good game like this, close like this on the road, I think that will help us later on.”
The Tar Heels during their first four ACC games have experienced a diverse spectrum. There was the stunning loss at Georgia Tech to begin conference play, followed by an overtime road victory against Clemson, followed by the demolition of N.C. State at the Smith Center on Sunday. And now this: winning after nearly losing a lead, and pulling away in the end.
UNC didn’t need much grit on Sunday. It came in handy on Wednesday, though.
“We definitely had some good things going for us,” said Justin Jackson, who led UNC with 19 points. “But they’re a great team. We knew they wouldn’t quit. Part of that run goes back to how good they are and how hard they play and how much they still wanted to win.”
Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, said he didn’t sense that his team let down after it built that 19-point lead early in the second half. It was just that Wake Forest, he said, outplayed the Tar Heels for several extended stretches after halftime.
Part of it was Bryant Crawford, the Wake Forest sophomore guard who finished with 22 points before fouling out late. Part of it was Brandon Childress, the Demon Deacons freshman guard who finished with 16 points, all in the second half. Another part: UNC’s defensive lapses.
“We just did a bad job of staying with their shooters,” Berry said. “And then we also put them on the free throw line, and that was bad on our part.”
And yet amid all the bad, the Tar Heels found a way. After the Demon Deacons cut UNC’s lead to one midway through the second half, the Tar Heels pushed it back out to nine. After Wake came back again to cut UNC’s lead to two, the Tar Heels pushed it back out to six a few minutes later.
Jackson’s 3-pointer with 63 seconds remaining provided that margin. Wake Forest came no closer than five points during the final minute, and the Tar Heels left with a victory and with enough mistakes that Williams won’t lack for teaching moments.
Did UNC need a win like this? After what happened on Sunday, was it good for the Tar Heels to remember what it’s like to be tested?
“After what happened Sunday,” Williams said without wasting any time, “it’s good to have another game we win. I don’t give a darn how you do it in the end, but I’d like for us to play a heck of a lot better.”