The biggest college basketball game so far this year wasn’t pretty, but certainly lived up to the hype. The Deacons (15-1, 4-0 ACC) took a big step ahead in the conference race, with no regular season rematch opportunity for the Tar Heels (14-2, 3-1).
Wake also snapped Carolina's 14-game win streak.
Chris Paul led four Deacs in double figures with 26 points, and added eight assists and five steals, while committing only one turnover.
“He’s got an instinct for getting to the basket,” Roy Williams said of Paul. “He’s got the ability to hang, draw the foul and finish the play.”
Taron Downey added 18 points off the bench, including three straight three pointers that moved Wake ahead for good midway through the first half.
“If I had to pick three or four huge factors, Downey and Ellis (11 points) combining for 29 points off the bench is outstanding,” Roy Williams said.
Despite trailing by 17 points on two occasions in the second half, the Tar Heel fought back and cut the lead to seven points twice in the final two minutes.
But the Deacons converted an ACC record 32 of 32 free throws – three shy of an NCAA record – and put to rest any hopes of a late UNC rally.
“You have to have some help to come back on a team like this, especially from the free throw line,” Roy Williams said. “They didn’t help us there a bit.”
Wake held Carolina to 40.3 percent from the floor, its worst shooting performance since the season opening loss to Santa Clara. The Tar Heels were out-rebounded (38-39) for the first time since their win over Iowa in the Maui Invitational.
“I think everyone was surprised by our defense,” said Wake’s Eric Williams, who finished with eight points and four rebounds. “They always say that we win by outscoring our opponents, but you have to give us credit because our defense has been pretty good this far in ACC play.”
Playing in foul trouble most of the game, Rashad McCants led the Tar Heels with 19 points, Raymond Felton added 16, Marvin Williams chipped in 15 points and seven rebounds and Jawad Williams had 12 points.
Sean May scored nine points to go with nine rebounds.
The Tar Heels jumped out to an early 10-4 lead, thanks to poor early shooting by the Deacons and a pair of threes from Jawad Williams. Carolina appeared on the cusp of taking the crowd out of the game, when Wake went on a 13-3 run to seize the lead for good, led by Downey’s barrage of consecutive threes. To make matters worse, McCants was already on the bench with two fouls after having run-ins with Downey and Trent Strickland.
While the crowd of 14,665 roared, Carolina was having difficulty getting the ball inside. If shots weren’t available from long range on the fast break, the Deacs defense wasn’t letting the Tar Heels get them.
“We guarded as well as we have all year, especially against a team with that many weapons,” Prosser said.
McCants would pick up his third foul with 5:13 left before the half, and Jackie Manuel would follow suit a few minutes later.
In an emotional and physical game, referees were desperately trying to keep control – even whistling a double foul on two separate occasions. For the game, the zebras whistled a combined 51 fouls.
For the first time since their season opening loss to Santa Clara, the Tar Heels trailed at intermission, 43-33.
The break was good for McCants, who scored five straight points to start the second half. But moments later he was back on the bench after picking up his fourth foul and wouldn’t return until the 9:59 mark.
Meanwhile Wake Forest quickly made up the stagger and then some, using a 10-0 run to take its biggest lead of the game to that point, 53-38 with 16:36 left to play. The Deacs would push the lead up to 17 points on two different occasions.