Roy Williams called it a “weird night” and in some ways North Carolina's 87-71 victory against Wake Forest was plenty weird, what with the Tar Heels' reliance on a zone defense and their short-handedness and their early turnovers followed by long stretches without them.
It was a good night, too, though, mixed in with some of the things that frustrate Williams – a little lack of effort here, some mental breakdowns there – but more filled with positives that made this one of the Tar Heels' most complete victories.
At halftime, Williams reminded his team of what had happened the last time UNC visited Joel Coliseum, where the Tar Heels' lost a season ago. He also spent some time, again, harping on the effort plays – like when Brice Johnson failed to pick up a loose ball in the first half.
Sometimes a team gets it, though, the Tar Heels did at the start of the second half. They quickly stretched their 40-34 halftime lead into double digits – Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, scored eight fast points to start the second half – and the Demon Deacons never threatened again.
“They were about to drive me crazy in the first half because of not going after the loose balls kind of thing,” Williams said. “I got a little dizzy out there one time. So maybe they thought they'd better play so I wouldn't black out on them. If that's all it takes I'll fake it sometimes.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels (15-4, 5-1 ACC) increased their hustle after halftime and they often relied on something they usually don't: a zone defense. The long-standing perception is that Williams isn't exactly a zone defense aficionado, that he somewhat despises the zone.
“Yeah, he does,” Johnson, the junior forward said. “But at the same time, sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do.”
And so that's what UNC – hampered by foul trouble early in the second half and without reserve freshman Theo Pinson, who left with a left foot injury – did. Not long after halftime, three of the Tar Heels' starters – Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks – found themselves with three fouls.
In going zone – UNC utilized a 2-3 and, at times, a 1-3-1 – the Tar Heels reduced the likelihood of further foul trouble and also dared cold-shooting Wake Forest (9-10, 1-5) to try to beat the defense from the outside. The strategy worked on both fronts.
Meeks picked up his fourth foul later but Paige and Tokoto didn't commit another. The Demon Deacons, meanwhile, made just seven of their 24 attempts from behind the 3-point line, and missed 10 of their 14 3-pointers in the second half.
“We played more zone tonight than we played in all the games we put together this year,” Williams said. “... So we just tried buy some time with it and hope that they would hustle it just like they would hopefully hustle man-to-man.
“And they made a couple 3s but I do think that bought us some time and it's what we were looking for.”
And so it was “weird” – to use Williams' word – to see so much zone out of the Tar Heels, and a bit weird for Johnson and Meeks, given their inconsistency, to be so consistent on Wednesday night. They both made eight out of their 11 shots from the field, and their 35 combined points – 19 for Johnson, 16 for Meeks – were their most since an early-season victory against Robert Morris.
Was this their best combined performance of the season?
“I have no idea,” said Williams, who characterized their shooting as “doggone good” while adding he still wanted, and expected, more.
“I said (at) the first press conference that we had that our team, the biggest thing is a couple of big guys had to step up and be big-time players,” Williams said. “And I'll still say that right now.”
Still, there are signs that it's starting to come together for the Tar Heels – that after less-than-inspired early-season defeats against Butler and Iowa, they're starting to find their identity and confidence and rhythm. UNC, for instance, worked the ball inside on Wednesday night at will, and outscored the Demon Deacons 50-26 in the paint.
The Tar Heels didn't shoot well from the outside – just 3-for-9 from behind the 3-point line, but they shot 60.3 percent overall, which was a season high.
“I think we're getting closer,” Paige said. “I don't know how close we are yet, but we're definitely getting closer. We're winning in different ways. We're finding different ways to win. We had to grind out some ugly ones.”
This wasn't among them. Paige, still hampered by plantar fasciitis, made four of eight attempts from the field and finished with 12 points. He, along with the rest of the Tar Heels, were continuously heckled by a group of Wake Forest fans that stood close to the UNC bench.
After making a long 3-pointer in the second half, Paige immediately pointed to a particularly vocal fan.
“I was taking the ball out of bounds and someone yelled, 'Go home, Marcus,'” Paige said. “Someone out of the crowd. And I was like OK, I'll remember that. And then I ended up being wide open. So I made a 3 and let him know that I was going to go home but it was going to be a little bit later.”
The Tar Heels, in fact, had talked among themselves, as they often do, about wanting to make the home crowd leave early. They led by as many as 18 points in the second half and never allowed the Demon Deacons to make a run.
And so then in the final few minutes, the result settled, the aisles began to fill the arena grew quieter. It had been a weird, different night for UNC but also one of its most efficient.