Roy Williams didn't sense any let up, he said after North Carolina's 93-87 victory at Wake Forest on Wednesday night. It wasn't as if the Tar Heels built that 19-point lead early in the second half and simply attempted to coast during the final 18 minutes.
“I just thought,” Williams said, “that they got much more aggressive and attacked us harder and we did a poor job on the defensive end.”
Williams, the UNC coach, came back to that again and again in the moments after his team's victory, a win that came with more difficulty, and angst, than it looked like it would in the moments after halftime. At that point the Demon Deacons were in foul trouble, and UNC was having little trouble.
The Tar Heels surrendered the first eight points on Wednesday night, but then outscored Wake by 27 during the next 20 minutes or so. And so UNC led by 19 with 18 minutes to play before the Demon Deacons, improbably, came back – and came back again.
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Wake Forest never tied the game or took the lead in the second half. But it came close, cutting that 19-point deficit to two points midway through the second half, and then cutting a nine-point lead to one with less than four minutes to play.
“They hit shots and they pushed the ball,” said Joel Berry, UNC’s junior point guard. “And I think we just did a bad job of staying with their shooters. And then we also put them on the free throw line and that was bad on our part.”
Both Williams and Berry lamented the Tar Heels' inability to play defense without fouling. And indeed, that hurt UNC on Wednesday night. The Demon Deacons attempted 22 free throws in the second half, more than 13 opponents had attempted during an entire game against UNC.
On a per-possession basis, Wake scored with a higher rate of efficiency than any UNC opponent with the exception of Kentucky. On the perimeter, the Tar Heels had difficulty countering the screens that provided Demon Deacons guard Bryant Crawford the space to penetrate, or shoot.
During the second half Brandon Childress, the Wake Forest freshman guard, looked a lot like his father, Randolph, who terrorized ACC defenses in the mid-1990s. The younger Childress finished with 16 points, all of them during the second half – all of them contributing to Wake's attempts to rally.
Earlier in the week, on Sunday, UNC had little difficulty putting away N.C. State. The Tar Heels led by 10 points four minutes into the game, and they only expanded that lead – right up until the final seconds. On Wednesday, though, they allowed Wake Forest back in it.
“I was extremely disappointed in our defense in the second half,” Williams said. “That was – we haven't played defense like that in 10 days.”
He was referring to his team's stunning defeat at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets roamed freely for layups, and repeatedly took advantage of the Tar Heels' defensive malaise. That was an overall debacle for UNC, though, because it faltered offensively as badly as it did defensively.
That wasn't the case at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum on Wednesday night. Offensively, at least, the Tar Heels played well throughout. All five starters scored in double figures. The Tar Heels shot 51.6 percent from the field. And yet in the final minutes the result was still in doubt.
Williams kept returning to defense, again and again, in the moments afterward. The short trip to Winston-Salem showed him that, defensively, his team is still a work in progress, that it's not yet at the level – at least not consistently – he'd like it to be.
He spoke of finding “some focus and some toughness” on the defensive end. Williams has often found himself searching for those traits. He looked and looked for them a year ago, too, before UNC discovered them late, during its run to the Final Four.
“I've never seen that was really great that didn't play great defense,” Williams said on Wednesday. “I told my guys last year – I said I've never seen a team make it to the Final Four that wasn't a really good defensive team, and down the stretch we were really good defensively.”
Down the stretch on Wednesday the Tar Heels were not good defensively. That reality left Williams “disappointed,” to use his word, and it left him with a clear focus of improvement entering an important game against Florida State on Saturday at the Smith Center.