North Carolina (19-3, 6-1 ACC) built an early 17-10 lead, but the Demon Deacons (11-11, 2-6 ACC) took advantage of an intentional foul against P.J. Hairston to score seven straight and tie the game at 17. UNC responded with a 9-0 run and eventually took a 36-24 lead into halftime.
Wake Forest used a 10-2 spurt to cut its deficit to 40-34 with 13:45 to play, but the Tar Heels created breathing room with an 12-0 run several minutes later to put the game out of reach.
Tyler Zeller paced UNC with 18 points and a career-high 18 rebounds – his ninth double-double of the season. The senior forward has now set career-highs in rebounds in three of his last five games. John Henson added 14 points and 12 rebounds and Kendall Marshall scored a season-high 14 points. Harrison Barnes added 13 points and seven rebounds.
C.J. Harris led Wake Forest with 19 points and Travis McKie grabbed 13 rebounds to go with eight points.
North Carolina shot a season-low 31.0 percent (22-of-71), including a 21.1 mark from long range (4-of-19). The Demon Deacons were even worse, connecting on just 29.6 percent of its field goal attempts (16-of-54). UNC won the rebounding battle, 55-40.
The Tar Heels committed a season-low six turnovers and did not allow a point to be scored in transition.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Return to Ugly
Ugly became routine during North Carolina's improbable run to the ACC Regular Season title in 2010-11, with teeth-grinding, hair-pulling grudge matches saturating the schedule. The Tar Heels won 62-56 at Virginia and 64-62 at Clemson, but saved the best for home with wins over Virgina Tech (64-61) and Boston College (48-46).
Add UNC's victory on Tuesday to that list of elegant performances.
"In order to have a great season, you've got to win some games ugly and that was an ugly win tonight," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
The ninth-year UNC head coach admitted that the three-games-in-six-days stretch "could have" played a role in his team's sloppy play. The Tar Heels played N.C. State on Thursday and Georgia Tech on Sunday.
"I didn't think our guys had quite the energy level that we had for sure at Virginia Tech or in the first half against North Carolina State," Williams said. "But the schedule is what it is and we've got to play it. I've got to do a better job of maybe working practices so that I don't take as much of their legs because I really didn't think we would shoot the basketball like that.
"I told my team, ‘I'm tired of saying we're good shooters – start making the dadgum things in the game.'"
North Carolina's 31.0 shooting percentage marks the lowest for the program in a win since a 30.4 percent effort against Akron on Dec. 14, 2003 – Williams' first year back in Chapel Hill.
Zeller also pointed to the cramped stretch of basketball as a reason for the lackluster showing.
"It is tough to be able to play that kind of schedule, but at the same time, we've got to be tough enough to step up and do that," Zeller said.
The positive, of course, is that UNC played in a bizarro world in which Henson had the most field goal attempts (16), Marshall made the most 3-pointers (2) and the team connected on 76.9 percent of its free throws (20-of-26) and still won handily.
That has to be worth something, right?
Bullock's Defensive Emergence
The debate following Dexter Strickland's season-ending ACL injury nearly two weeks ago centered on whether the lack of his defensive presence would present the bigger problem for UNC or if his absence as backup point guard would earn that label.
After three games starting in Strickland's spot, Reggie Bullock has made that argument incredibly one-sided.
The sophomore has been tasked with defending three of the ACC's leading scorers – N.C. State's Scott Wood, Georgia Tech's Glen Rice, Jr. and Wake Forest's C.J. Harris – in his three starts and he's dominated each matchup, especially early in the game. That triumvirate combined for four points on 2-of-13 shooting in 52 minutes of first-half playing time against Bullock.
"I knew when Dexter was out there that was his main goal – to shut down their best offensive player," Bullock said. "With me moving in and filling his spot, I know I've just got to bring that defensive effort that he brought when he was out there."
Harris finished with 19 points on Tuesday, but didn't score his first basket of the second half until a 3-pointer with 14:28 to play. The junior guard scored eight points in the final 2:24 after UNC had taken a 22-point lead.
Barnes Ankle Info
Tar Heel fans understandably held their collective breath when Barnes headed to the locker at the 7:49 mark of the first half after spraining his left ankle. The sophomore forward termed the injury as a "freak accident" as he was just running down the court and rolled it.
Barnes returned to the bench around the three-minute mark after having the ankle re-taped and re-entered the game with 1:21 remaining before halftime.
"Harrison sprained his ankle and said he could play and our trainer thought he could play, so we tried to play him instead of letting him sit over there and get it get stiff," Williams said. "He'll get a couple of days off now and hopefully will be ready to play on the weekend."
Barnes told the first wave of reporters that his ankle was "in a lot of pain," but updated his status with the second group.
"I can't really feel it – it's a little numb," said Barnes, adding, "Rest and ice will hopefully make it feel better."
Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.