Ordinarily, a win over a fringe NCAA Tournament team wouldn’t generate much excitement in Chapel Hill. But there was genuine elation in town on Saturday afternoon, after North Carolina marched to Wake Forest and brought back a 77-68 victory.
The Heels did a much better job handling the ball, dishing out 16 assists against a relatively low 12 turnovers. Some of the better ball control can be attributed to UNC playing at a slightly slower pace and focusing harder on getting better shots.
Which isn’t to say Carolina shot especially well. The Heels hit just 40 percent from the field, and they were a truly horrific 58 percent from the foul line, including just 4-for-12 by Larry Drew.
Drew, for the record, denied transfer rumors after the game based on a published report that surfaced Friday on the internet. Overall, the beleaguered sophomore point guard did a good job containing speedy Wake guard Ishe Smith, and he contributed eight assists with only three turnovers.
Carolina’s defense was the overwhelming factor in the win. Certainly, the Demon Deacons missed far too many open shots, but it could be argued convincingly that the Heels have caught some bad breaks along those lines throughout the bulk of the season. In this contest, Wake hit only 30 percent of its shots, a devastatingly poor performance at home.
The Tar Heels took advantage of Wake’s leaky transition defense as well, getting some rare easy buckets that recalled the days of Lawson-Ellington-Green.
Individually, the two players who stepped forward were a pair of freshmen: John Henson and Leslie McDonald. Henson, so much more fluid and instinctive playing the power forward position — Roy Williams’ decision to place him on the wing for most of the year is among the more befuddling coaching moves he’s made since arriving in Chapel Hill — had nine points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against Wake’s enormous frontline.
Henson also gave the team an emotional lift, pumping his fists and clapping repeatedly after good plays.
McDonald scored 16 points and displayed the aggression the team has lacked in halfcourt offense all season. He faces an uncertain future at Carolina because of elite incoming recruits at the wing positions, so everything he can do now to establish himself with his coach will be critical to his playing time next season and beyond.
While the joy in mudville is well-earned after an extremely difficult season, to say the least, no one should read too much into one game. The Heels now are 4-10 in the ACC, the only postseason ramifications of the victory being that they’re now more likely to get invited to the NIT.
The Tar Heels will host struggling Miami on Tuesday night in their final home game of the season. To view the UNC/Wake box score, click here.