Heels Roll on the Road

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Forget the records, the point spread and any other pregame preconceptions. No. 15 North Carolina turned in a dominant ACC road win against an improving Wake Forest squad, 87-71, on Wednesday to move to 5-1 in conference play.

The Wake Forest team that the Tar Heels (15-4) defeated at Lawrence Joel Coliseum was quite different than the one that lost to Iona and Delaware State in November. Danny Manning’s club dropped competitive contests to No. 5 Duke and No. 10 Louisville earlier this month before losing in overtime at Syracuse last week.

Winning on the road, however, has long been a staple of Roy Williams’s teams in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels are 61-32 in ACC play away from the Smith Center during his dozen years at the helm.

“Coach just prepares us that way,” junior guard Marcus Paige told reporters after the game. “He gives us a lot of confidence coming into road games. A lot of teams feel like you have to win every game at home to give yourself a chance, but we don’t mind the challenge of going on the road…

“Coach always says our goal when we go on the road is to send the home fans home early. I guess we were able to do that today.”

No guessing needed. After a back-and-forth affair for much of the first half, UNC took control with an 18-8 run that overlapped the break. That spurt extended to 35-17 with 12:55 to play.

Despite a difficult start, UNC established its post presence offensively and protected the rim defensively in winning its third ACC road game in three tries this season.

“It’s a good, good win,” Williams said. “We feel good about it.”

After committing turnovers on three of its first six possessions, UNC coughed up the ball just four times over its next 49 possessions.

On Sunday, the Tar Heels failed to adequately emphasize their bigs despite Virginia Tech’s four-guard lineup, scoring just 34 points in the paint. The Tar Heels surpassed that total less than five minutes into the second half against the Demon Deacons and ultimately finished with 50 points in the paint.

Forwards Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks combined for 35 points on 16-of-22 shooting, while wing Justin Jackson scored 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. One aspect of those post-scoring opportunities that stood out was how quickly the ball left the players’ hands.

“Coach wants us to make a quick move,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t want us to hold the ball and move around and all of those different things. Just make a quick move, and if you do that, it will work for you.”

Those efforts, along with the Demon Deacons’ porous interior defense (279th nationally in 2-point FG% defense) help explain UNC’s season-high 60.3 field goal percentage. Wake Forest’s 26 points in the paint also provide insight into its 40.0 percent shooting display.

That statistical discrepancy looms larger when considering the additional adversity directed UNC’s way.

The Tar Heels showcased their 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones for much of the second half – the 2-3 for the first time since their loss to Kentucky last month – due to foul trouble. J.P. Tokoto, Paige and Meeks had all picked up their third fouls by the opening minute of the second half.

Injuries also mounted. With point guards Joel Berry (groin), Stilman White (foot) and Luke Davis (foot) already in suits due to previous injuries, freshman wing Theo Pinson added to the toll by bruising his left foot midway through the first half. He will be re-evaluated on Thursday, according to a UNC spokesperson.

Early in the second half, J.P. Tokoto had his left wrist wrapped by athletic trainer Doug Halverson, and then Nate Britt received medical attention for a lacerated lip in the closing minutes.

The Demon Deacons did force 12 turnovers and score 13 points off 13 offensive rebounds, so UNC’s performance was far from flawless. The Tar Heels are trending in the right direction, although their ceiling is yet to be determined.

“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, but this game we were able to get a nice, comfortable lead in the high-teens…

“I think we’re starting to hit our stride. ”

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