Luke DeCock

Tar Heels back on track after baffling loss to open ACC play – DeCock

UNC's Hicks on his aggressive play against Wake Forest

UNC's Isiah Hicks talks with reporters about his aggressive play in the Tar Heels' win on the road against Wake Forest.
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UNC's Isiah Hicks talks with reporters about his aggressive play in the Tar Heels' win on the road against Wake Forest.

The more time passes, and it’s not just the wins but the various ways North Carolina is winning, and it’s harder and harder still to figure out what the heck happened in Atlanta.

That ACC opener, that baffling loss to Georgia Tech, doesn’t make any more sense now than it did 12 days ago. Since then, the Tar Heels battled to win at Clemson, blew the doors off N.C. State and, Wednesday night, saw a 19-point lead dwindle to one before regrouping to win at Wake Forest, 93-87.

Those three games, both in result and process, more closely resemble what was expected from North Carolina in conference play, not that 75-63 loss on New Year’s Eve. Clearly, whatever went wrong that day – the flu, a rare off game from Joel Berry – was an acute problem, not a chronic one.

“We’ve got to keep it going, we’ve got to fix the things that we need to fix, but I think the fact that we’re coming out on top in tough environments, some tough situations, I think is really big for us,” North Carolina forward Justin Jackson said.

As two-game stretches go, this was an important one for North Carolina. While it’s easy to get caught up in how awful N.C. State looked on Sunday – one of the worst, if not the worst, losses in the history of that program; there have been deer more composed while staring down oncoming headlights – it was also a ceremonial unleashing of the full fury of the Tar Heels, with Theo Pinson finally healthy, a 51-point margin’s worth.

Sure, the offensive output was staggering, but that’s the easy part, especially against opposition that more than once wasn’t even on the same side of the floor as a 3-point shooter (and Jackson isn’t going to miss when the nearest hand is 25 feet away from his face). What was truly impressive about Sunday was North Carolina’s defensive effort, denying N.C. State just about everything it wanted to do, forcing Dennis Smith Jr. into blind alleys and outhustling the Wolfpack to every loose ball.

That’s the way things were trending Wednesday. With Bryant Crawford and John Collins both in foul trouble in the first half, and Collins picking up his third only 8 seconds into the second, the Tar Heels pulled away to lead by 19 early in the second.

It didn’t last. The Tar Heels were running out of big men, with foul trouble all the way down the bench and Tony Bradley out for the game after hitting his head on the floor hard, disturbingly hard, late in the first half. With Crawford gunning and some slightly unexpected help from Brandon Childress, doing his best impression of dad, the Deacons cut the North Carolina lead to one, then hung tough right to the final seconds against some lax North Carolina defense.

It was lax enough in the second half to raise questions about whether this team is on the same path as last year’s team, which took most of the ACC season to develop a consistent defensive mentality, although once the Tar Heels did, they were nearly unbeatable. You’d think this group would be ahead of the curve, and it certainly looked that way against N.C. State, if not in the second half against Wake Forest.

“We want to be ahead of where we were last year, but we’ve still got some things we have to do better,” Jackson said. “They’re definitely things that we can fix, that’s not the problem, but we just have to fix them, and once we fix them we’ll be all right.”

But there’s some real talent on this Wake Forest team, and not just Crawford, who is fantastic, or Collins, who never really had a chance to make an impact Wednesday. The Deacons never gave up, not even down 19, and Danny Manning finally has some shooters to put around his glue guys. His vision for the program has never been clearer, and Wake Forest is going to win some ACC games this season. Just not Wednesday.

The Demon Deacons asked far more of the Tar Heels than the Wolfpack did, and the Tar Heels had to dig far deeper to put the game away.

UNC point guard Joel Berry talks about the Wake Forest comeback and the Tar Heels' ability to still win on the road against the Deacons.

It took everything they had, too, especially without Bradley: Five players in double-digits, a gutty Berry 3-pointer late in the shot clock at a crucial moment, solid utility play from Pinson as he continues to work his way back into form.

Which isn’t to say it was a perfect performance for North Carolina – the Tar Heels were far better defensively against N.C. State, and Wake Forest found several repeatable avenues to the bucket – but they continue to find ways to win. It’s never been harder to win on the road in the ACC than it has been this January, and North Carolina has now done it twice.

“You need to win games in different ways, because if you don’t, if you play the same way all the time, they’ll take that away from you and you lose your confidence and the whole thing,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I think our guys did keep battling. I was extremely disappointed with our defense in the second half. We haven’t played defense like that in 10 days – Georgia Tech. … Clemson, North Carolina State and Wake Forest were three really different games for my emotions on the bench and I think the way we evaluate how we played. We still made some big shots.”

It’s everything the Tar Heels were missing against Georgia Tech, without any explanation. From that initial stumble, they continue to push forward, not always easily, but forward.

Video: North Carolina coach Roy Williams' post game comments following the Tar Heels victory over Wake Forest on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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