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Wake Forest (18-8, 8-6 ACC) inched out to a 24-20 advantage after a handful of lead changes, but UNC (15-14, 4-10 ACC) rallied with a 12-4 spurt to close the first half with a 32-28 lead. The Tar Heels eventually increased that margin to 64-53 just inside the five-minute mark of the second half.
L.D. Williams' 3-pointer from the wing cut that deficit to 71-68 with 59 seconds to play, but the Tar Heels scored the final six points to post just their second ACC road win of the season.
Leslie McDonald led UNC with 16 points, while Will Graves added 13 points and four rebounds. John Henson (nine points, 12 rebounds) and Marcus Ginyard (eight points, career-high 13 rebounds) both flirted with double-doubles for the Tar Heels.
Ari Stewart paced Wake Forest with 16 points and received help from L.D. Williams (14 points) and Ish Smith (12 points).
North Carolina connected on 40.0 percent of its field goal attempts (26-of-65), while Wake Forest shot 29.7 percent (22-of-74) from the floor. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Demon Deacons, 52-50.
The Demon Deacons lost five of their last six in Gaudio's first season in 2007-08, and followed that up with losing seven of their final 15 games – including first-round exits in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments – after claiming the No. 1 spot in the national polls in January '09.
North Carolina is now one victory away from notching the program's 2,000th win.
INSIDE THE GAME
Forty Minutes of Defense
The Tar Heels have not lived up to Roy Williams' preseason claims about this team potentially being a very good defensive unit, but the boys in blue have shown glimpses as to why their head coach made those statements.
Saturday likely provided the best example to date. North Carolina held the Demon Deacons to 29.7 percent shooting (22-of-74) overall, combining a 27.3 percent first-half effort (9-of-33) with a 31.7 percent mark (13-of-41) after intermission.
After Ari Stewart connected on two early 3-pointers, Wake Forest would miss 14 of its next 21 attempts from long range, finishing with a 36.0 percentage beyond the arc.
But most important for the Tar Heels on Saturday was their ability to limit Al-Farouq Aminu and Ish Smith – the Demon Deacons' top-two leading scorers. The pair scored 19 points, but needed 28 field goal attempts to reach that total in converting just 25 percent from the floor.
"Those guys would much rather get it in the lane closer to the basket, there's no question about that," Williams said. "But I look down and both of them made a 3-pointer, also. We didn't want that to happen… Sometimes it just helps when the other team misses some shots, and I think that helped us today."
While many observers have written off North Carolina's 2009-10 season, there is still time for growth and development in the final handful of games. Look no further than Tar Heel freshmen Leslie McDonald's and John Henson's performances against the Demon Deacons.
Of course, we've seen Henson's production increase since moving from the wing to the post three weeks ago, but it's apparent that the 6-foot-10 forward is quickly carving out his niche in the college basketball landscape.
On Saturday, the lanky freshman scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, while grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking five shots.
"I think I took a nice step [today]," Henson said. "I've still got to work on my free throws, but rebounding and block-wise, hopefully I can keep that going."
McDonald's development, on the other hand, has been visible primarily just to those privy to North Carolina's practice sessions. But that changed against Wake Forest as the freshman guard led the Tar Heels with 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
"I have told him in practice that I think he's working harder, he's being more aggressive and he's being more attentive," Williams said. "I told him yesterday or Thursday, ‘Just keep doing what you're doing and it's going to pay off for you.'"
McDonald admitted that he's approached practice a little differently in recent weeks.
"I've been working extra hard in practice," McDonald said. "I just took the easy route; not putting so much pressure on myself and doing what Coach says. That was the main thing that I was focusing on in my head. So out on the floor, I just did what Coach told me to do – play good, hard-nosed defense. And look where I'm at now – we just won."
Funny how that works.
If there's anything nice to say about the opposing runs that have battered North Carolina all season long, it would be that they are non-discriminating.
Georgia Tech and Florida State recently delivered back-breaking first-half spurts, while Duke and Boston College did their damage after halftime. Even teams that have lost to UNC have enjoyed streaks of success, such as Virginia Tech's 14-6 run on Jan. 10 and N.C. State's 18-4 spurt on Jan. 26.
North Carolina almost prevented any such run from occurring on Saturday, but that old adversary reminded the Heels late in the game that it was ever-present in their lives. Wake Forest managed a 15-7 spurt in the final five minutes to slice UNC's lead from 64-53 to 71-68 with 59 seconds remaining, thanks to six missed free throws by Larry Drew, but the Tar Heels withstood the run to pull out just their second true road victory on the season.
UNC even mixed things up with a run of their own, outscoring the Demon Deacons, 16-5, after they had taken a 42-41 lead with 12:56 remaining.