It was senior night for the Demon Deacons, which meant this was the last career home game for likely Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Josh Howard. The Deacs also got a pre-game motivational speech from legendary Hall of Fame baseball manager Tommy Lasorda.
Add foul trouble to UNC (15-14, 5-10 ACC) weapons Rashad McCants, who played just 19 minutes, and Jawad Williams, an off night for point guard Raymond Felton, and combine it with a terrific performance by Howard and Carolina's task couldn't have been much more difficult.
"I'm frustrated to give such a great effort and come up short," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "I'm proud of our guys. They really played hard and put us in position to win against a great team. And to come up short hurts."
Nevertheless, the Tar Heels had their chances. They cut Wake's lead to 44-42 with 17:02 left on a pair of McCants (10 points, one rebound, four turnovers) free throws. But the Deacons (22-4, 12-3) pieced together crucial runs of 7-0 and 7-2 not long after, and led 59-47 with 7:16 left in the game.
This was during a stretch in which McCants picked up his fourth foul with 13:37 left and Williams (17 points, six rebounds) was whistled for his fourth with 10:19 remaining.
"They are definitely two of our leading scorers, and with them getting into such foul trouble it did hurt us," said Melvin Scott. "We just need to learn to pick up where other guys leave off, and there's going to be games like that when guys get into foul trouble. But that's our responsibility as guys coming in off the bench to pick up the slack."
Doherty said the fouls were an obvious key.
"It was a key," Doherty said. "They shoot almost three times as many foul shots as we do. (Our) best players are on the bench, so yeah, it's a big part.
"They get 24 foul shots, we shoot nine. We foul 23 times and they foul 12. It's part of the game. It's frustrating."
And for McCants, who seemingly picked up a foul every few minutes and eventually collected his fifth and final foul with 5:56 remaining, getting into a flow was difficult.
"I started out real well," he said. "The first five points I just knew I was going to explode. I felt real good and just knew I was going to have a big night… but it was difficult to get into a flow. Real difficult."
With McCants and Williams on the bench, Doherty used a lineup of Felton, David Noel, Jackie Manuel, Scott, and Byron Sanders. Clearly the Heels were a bit challenged from a personnel perspective, and it showed.
"Nothing's impossible in a basketball game, because anything can happen," Noel said. "But when you have guys like that in foul trouble – the bulk of your scoring – it makes things much more difficult."
Not so ironically, UNC went 6:44 without a field goal, mostly with McCants and then Williams on the bench.
"I didn't think we got great shots," Doherty said about he basket-less stretch. "But, I thought, we tried to draw fouls too, that was part of our game plan, was to try to spread it a little bit.
"We had advantages of being smaller and quicker at some positions and then try to drive it and draw contact. But we didn't get it. Didn't get any baskets or get to the foul line."
On the other end, Howard was giving Wake's fans an impressive final memory at Joel.
The local product went off in the second half, scoring 17 of his game-high 24 points. Included in his arsenal were four 3-pointers, three jams, slashing moves and pull-up jumpers few can match in the college game. He also grabbed nine rebounds, and was excellent and active on defense.
"He can do everything so well," Noel said about Howard. "He can drive, shoot the 3, post up, he's so tough to defend. He's a great player."
In fact, Howard scored 15 of Wake's 20 points in a stretch that gave Wake a 69-51 advantage and essentially sealed the deal. In one particularly notable stretch he scored four straight field goals, showing his tremendous range as an offensive juggernaut.
"He (Howard) was struggling in the first half, but he was still playing hard and scrapping on the offensive boards," Wake coach Skip Prosser said. "Our guys found him with some great passes in the second half, and he also hit some real big shots. That's what seniors do."
And despite being more active than in recent games defensively, UNC still allowed Wake to make half of its shot attempts in the first half and weren't awful despite unimpressive stats (Wake shot 49.1 percent for the game).
"I thought out effort was great," Doherty said when asked about the team's obvious intensity and alertness in the first half. "They (Wake) get a lot of buckets off of offensive boards. I thought our defensive effort was great.
"They are a talented team with some good shooters. I was pleased with our defensive energy throughout."
And the Tar Heels had no answer for Howard either.
"He's a great player, no doubt," Scott said. "We tried to stop him, but he is so good at making things happen. He plays bigger than his size (6-foot-6) but plays well away from the basket, too."
Freshman guard Justin Gray scored 16 points for Prosser's club, and Jamaal Levy shipped in 13 points and eight rebounds.
Manuel finished with 12 points for Carolina while Noel tallied nine and Scott ended up with seven, six of which came on a pair of first-half 3s.
After Wake opened with a 6-2 lead, UNC went on an 11-2 run to take a 13-9 lead after Scott nailed a 3-pointer – one of six in the first half for Carolina. The Tar Heels then led, taking its highest margin to seven at 21-14 with 11:31 left before intermission. But The Deacons quickly went on a 7-0 run to knot the game after Williams was called for goaltending on a Taron Downey layup.
Carolina's last leads of the half were at 26-13 after a Manuel 3 and 26-25 before Levy put the Deacs up to stay with a soft lay with 4:38 remaining before halftime. Thirty-eight seconds later McCants picked up his third foul of the game, and UNC was outscored 10-7 the rest of the way as Wake took a 37-33 lead into the locker room.
And for the Tar Heels, this was just a night where there were too many obstacles to overcome. Felton, who finished the game with just five points on 2-14 shooting – 1-8 from beyond the arc – had a feeling it wasn't his night.
"I know that anybody can come out and miss shots," Felton said. "But once I missed that layup that went down in the rim and came back out I knew I was having a bad night then.
"That happens to players, all players. I just can't let it affect the rest of my game."
But it did affect the Tar Heels, as did fouls and a man named Howard.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.