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North Carolina (19-6, 9-2 ACC) slowly built a 33-15 lead with 5:34 remaining in the first half, but Wake Forest (8-18, 1-10 ACC) refused to go away, cutting that deficit to 63-55 with 6:45 left to play following a 14-4 spurt. The Tar Heels answered with an 11-0 run to end any threat of a monumental upset.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 18 points and also grabbed nine rebounds, while John Henson posted 14 points and 13 rebounds. Harrison Barnes scored 17 points on 7-of-20 shooting and Leslie McDonald added 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
J.T. Terrell paced the Demon Deacons with 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting (4-of-8 on 3-pointers) and Gary Clark added 13 points.
North Carolina shot 36.6 percent (26-of-71, 5-of-27 on 3-pointers) from the floor, while holding Wake Forest to 37.7 percent shooting (23-of-61, 8-of-20 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels outrebounded the Demon Deacons, 50-35.
INSIDE THE GAME
Developing the Killer Instinct
North Carolina is undoubtedly an evolving basketball squad that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent weeks. The Tar Heels have proven that they can win ugly (three wins in scoring 64 points or less in the last five weeks) and that they can respond after tough losses (five wins following their last five losses).
Tuesday presented a different challenge. While Wake Forest is an ACC program, this particular Demon Deacon squad would struggle in the Colonial Athletic Association. Head coach Jeff Bzdelik's first team in Winston-Salem entered its game against UNC ranking 11th and 12th in 15 statistical categories in the ACC, including scoring margin (minus-19.4), field goal percentage (40.2) and field goal percentage defense (47.0).
But despite jumping out to an 18-point lead less than 15 minutes into the game, North Carolina allowed Wake Forest to go on a 15-8 run overlapping halftime. The Demon Deacons had the ball with an opportunity to cut their deficit to single digits not even 70 seconds into the second half.
"I was afraid it was going to be a difficult game," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "Everybody talked so much about that four-game stretch and I think our guys believed that was a mountain they could not climb, because we were happy about trying to climb that mountain that we forgot to have our intelligence and intensity level where we needed it tonight."
The Tar Heels woke up and responded with a quick 8-0 spurt to regain control, but this was a game that should have been over by halftime. UNC struggled again against a zone defense, shooting 36.6 percent for the game and failing to score a basket in transition until a Barnes dunk roughly four minutes after the break.
The Demon Deacons clawed back within 63-55 at the 6:38 mark, but were unable to get any closer, although the Tar Heels never appeared comfortable in running their sets as the game clock wore down. The NCAA Tournament will be loaded with talented teams begging for this type of opportunity against a name program like North Carolina.
The learning curve is still a living thing in Chapel Hill, which is to be expected for a team that starts two freshmen and two sophomores. Tuesday was just a reminder that school is still in session.
"We want to be at our best at the end of the season," guard Kendall Marshall said. "If we can keep making strides every game, then we can get there… I feel like the only stride we made today is that we won. Other than that, there's a lot of stuff we can get better at."
Firing into the Abyss
Facing a Wake Forest frontcourt that ranks second in the ACC and eighth nationally in blocked shots (5.9), North Carolina leaned on a part of its offense that has struggled in recent games – the 3-ball. The Tar Heels had shot 14.3 percent (4-of-28) over their past two games, but that didn't prevent the boys in blue from firing 16 3-pointers in the 20 minutes, tying their season-high for attempts in a half.
Of course, UNC connected on nine of its 16 first-half attempts against Long Beach State back on Dec. 11, making that double-digit quantity understandable. The Tar Heels didn't fare quite as well against Wake Forest, shooting just 25 percent (4-of-16) in the opening half.
The Demon Deacons were content to stay tight in their zone defense, allowing for a handful of open looks outside.
"We took a lot of good shots - half our shots were completely wide open and we missed them," Barnes said. "That's just a matter of us going into the gym and making those ... I think we took a lot of threes tonight due to their zone.
"They tried to pack it inside - they knew John and ‘Z' would try to get easy lay-ups - they kept doubling down, which allowed us to get a lot of perimeter shots. If a team's playing man it's so much easier to attack the rim, get the ball inside and get easy lay-ups."
Things didn't get any better after halftime as UNC missed 10 of its 11 treys. In all, North Carolina eclipsed its previous season-high for 3-point attempts by four in knocking down just 5-of-27 opportunities from long range.
Barnes, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock were more than willing to utilize their green lights (4-of-20), although Dexter Strickland's 0-for-5 mark is baffling in its sheer volume.
"It's something that you've got to get better at," Williams said. "Guys, we practice shooting, we're good shooters, we haven't made them, we've got to be tough enough to step up and make them."
North Carolina is shooting a paltry 16.4 percent (9-of-55) from beyond the arc over its last three games. UNC connected on 46.3 percent (19-of-41) of its 3-pointers in the two games prior in blowing out both Boston College and Florida State, but at some point soon, the Tar Heels are going to have to develop more consistency from the perimeter if they hope to make a run in March.
Limited Touches for UNC Big Men
Zeller and Henson have slowly developed into the ACC's top post tandem, combining to average 31.2 points and 19 rebounds over UNC's last six games. Even more impressive is the fact that the pair is connecting on 59.8 percent of their field goal attempts (73-of-122) during that stretch.
But that also equals out to just 20 combined field goal attempts per game for the duo. Granted, Henson's primary role is as a defender and rebounder, and his unorthodox handling of the ball allows him some opportunities in driving to the basket from different angles.
Zeller, however, is UNC's No. 1 scoring option in the post, but is only averaging nine field goal attempts during that six-game span. On Tuesday, the seven-footer met that average (18 points on 6-of-9 shooting), thanks to a transition basket and several offensive putback opportunities.
But his teammates took what the Demon Deacons were giving them (outside looks) instead of working from the inside out.
"Zeller is a very efficient player," Marshall said. "He does a great job scoring. As for getting him the ball, we just have to find the passing angles to get it to him. At Clemson it was tough – their post players and their defense made it hard for us. Today with a zone, it's a lot harder to get it inside, so we just have to get back to finding ways to get him the ball."
Zeller, on the other hand, expressed no angst that UNC's 3-point attempts tripled his shots in the paint.
"Reggie, Leslie, Harrison – they're all great shooters," Zeller said. "They just didn't make shots tonight. It's one of those things that as long as they are working on it, as long as they are getting better and I know they're doing that, then they're going to make them sooner or later. That makes everything so much easier for John, me and Justin [Knox] inside."