WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – It wasn’t until Wake Forest fell behind by 19 points early in the second half that it switched on its attack mode, and then it became a matter of No. 11 North Carolina attempting, and oftentimes failing, at cobbling together defense stops to secure a 93-87 victory.
The Demon Deacons missed 22 of their first 34 field goal attempts as UNC eventually built a 57-38 lead with 18:06 to play. A renewed determination in getting to the rim not only led to a 50 percent shooting performance in the second half, it also allowed Danny Manning’s squad to take 22 free throws over the final 18:34.
“We had a nice lead and then I thought they became much more aggressive than we were,” Roy Williams told reporters after the game. “They started attacking the basket. They started attacking off the screens on the ball and we had a difficult time keeping them in front of us. And then all of a sudden they started making threes. It was a big-time breakdown for us defensively.”
UNC was called for 16 fouls after halftime, which resulted in four different players picking up four fouls. Wake Forest cut its deficit to 66-65 with 9:43 to play, turning a blowout into an intense contest down the stretch on Tobacco Road.
“That’s the way you come back from deficits like that,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “You’ve got to attack the basket, and they did a great job at it. They got to the free throw line and stopped the clock. They started hitting threes, they got our bigs in foul trouble. They did what they needed to do to get back in the game and make it a game at the end.”
Despite the number of whistles that went against his Tar Heels, Williams said he never yelled at the officials for any of the fouls that were called. If his players had been sliding their feet instead of reaching, he suggested, the fouls would not have mounted as quickly as they did.
“They were attacking us,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “They shot 22 free throws, which means that we were fouling a lot. We had some fouls where we were just reaching in and trying to grab the ball instead of getting our whole body in and stopping them from driving. We’ve got to fix that. I think we did a great job in the first half of playing defense, but we’ve got to carry that over to the second half.”
The Tar Heels credited the Demon Deacons’ offensive versatility for the defensive struggles. At times, UNC helped too much off the drive, which offered open looks from three. Other times, the Tar Heels were too focused on denying the pass on the perimeter, which created driving lanes.
“A lot of it was just staying in front of the ball,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “They spaced a whole lot with their shooters and they just set ball screens. Some of it was that maybe our bigs didn’t stay long enough or maybe our guards didn’t get over the screen fast enough to get back to their man, because a lot of the time a lot of the fouls just came from them turning the corner and getting to the basket.”
These are critical defensive lessons to learn, especially with an explosive Florida State team coming to town on Saturday.