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While the preceding is a testament to the top-to-bottom strength of the conference, both came into Saturday’s match-up desperately in need of a win with NCAA Tournament seeds far from secured.
UNC was just 7-6 since a non-conference win over Akron and Wake had lost five of its last seven.
But thanks to a much-improved defensive effort by Carolina on both the perimeter and in the paint, the Tar Heels held off a late surge by the Deacs and avenged its earlier loss by topping Wake, 79-73, at Lawrence-Joel Coliseum.
In the process, the Tar Heels (14-6, 4-5 ACC) won their first conference road game in two calendar years, snapping an ACC road-losing streak, which had spanned two seasons.
After Wake had cut what was once a 16-point Carolina lead down to two with just 51.2 seconds left to play, Raymond Felton, who had missed all five of his previous three-point attempts on the day, finally nailed the one that counted.
“That was David Noel’s pick (to free Felton) and setting a down screen for Rashad [McCants],” Sean May said. “The play was originally designed for Raymond to come off it and give the ball to me in the post, but he had an open look and I knew he was about to shoot it. Tough players make tough shots.”
Felton scored 17 points, remarkably without committing a single turnover, while McCants finished with 14 points. McCants, Felton and Sean May lead the ACC in scoring, assists and rebounding, respectively.
“That was huge for us and his three was needless to say a big-time shot,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Seventeen of the Tar Heels 38 rebounds were on the offensive end of the floor.
A resurgent May had his way underneath the basket, scoring 18 points to go along with his 10 rebounds.
Deacs center Eric Williams, who scored 24 points and snagged 8 rebounds in Chapel Hill, was held to just six points and two boards. And Wake made 11-of-30 threes in the first meeting, but weren’t as effective this time, hitting just 7 of 23 attempts from beyond the arc.
“We’re much better in transition defense now than we were then,” Williams said. “It was important for us to contain Paul and Williams. I thought we were aggressive, even in the zone.”
Key to the Tar Heels’ victory was also its efficiency at the free throw line where they converted 20-of-22 attempts.
“We missed some key free throws that could have won the game in the first meeting,” Williams said. “I think we shoot more free throws in practice than anybody else and we haven’t changed a thing.”
With a win Tuesday night at No. 15 Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels could potentially move into a three-way tie for third place in the ACC, provided Maryland holds serve on its home court and defeats Florida State on Sunday.
Following Carolina’s 83-81 overtime loss to Duke on Thursday, McCants said he expected the Tar Heels’ solid showing to propel them positively into the second half of the season. And despite coming off a defeat and the short preparation time for the trip to Wake, UNC appears to have a renewed confidence.
“For our guys to bounce back in such a short time is something I’m very proud of,” Williams said. “We should play just as good on the road as we do at home. It’s an attitude. We realize we’ve let some opportunities slip through our fingers on the road this year.”
Scott, who scored 14 first-half points, hit his fourth straight three-pointer to give the Tar Heels their biggest lead at 34-18 with 8:01 remaining. But Carolina, which let a seven-point lead disintegrate down the stretch in the loss to Duke, did not convert its next field goal until after the half. By intermission, Wake had trimmed its deficit to five, and when Justin Gray nailed a three less than a minute into the second half, the Tar Heels led just 38-36.
Jamaal Levy and Justin Gray each scored 19 points to lead the Deacs.
“The first ten minutes of the game were really telling,” Wake coach Skip Prosser said. “Carolina ran their stuff well and we did very little to disrupt that. We didn’t play hard enough in the beginning of the game. That’s on me.
“Raymond Felton picked a good time to hit his one three of the night.”