As if it hadn’t been preached enough already, Wednesday night provided the latest proof that nothing can be taken for granted in this year’s ACC.
On the road against unranked Wake Forest, No. 11 UNC let a 19-point lead slip away in the second half—before eventually holding on for a 93-87 victory.
All five starters scored in double figures for the Tar Heels (15-3, 3-1 ACC), led by 19 points from junior wing Justin Jackson—whose clutch three-pointer put the game on ice with just over a minute remaining.
Point guard Joel Berry added 18 points, while the senior frontcourt tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks tallied 18 and 16 respectively.
Meeks—who also grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds–continually exploited the soft spot in Wake Forest’s 2-3 zone defense down the stretch.
This came after the Demon Deacons battled back with a steady mix of free throws and three-pointers against a Tar Heel defense that once again struggled to defend drive-and-kick situations.
Although his team allowed Wake Forest (10-7, 1-4 ACC) to come within one point of the lead late in the game, UNC head coach Roy Williams was thankful afterwards to have a group as offensively capable as this one.
“I’ve always felt if everyone on your club can score, then it’s harder to guard you,” Williams said. “The other team’s defense can’t just focus on one guy.
“I think one of the things that was big for us, too, was 22 assists to 11 turnovers,” the coach continued. “Kenny [Williams], Justin [Jackson], Joel [Berry], Nate [Britt]—they kept finding Isaiah [Hicks] and Kennedy [Meeks] down low for good baskets.”
Throughout his career, Meeks has battled criticism surrounding his conditioning.
On Wednesday, however, he was forced into playing strong for 33 minutes after freshman Tony Bradley banged his head on the floor in the first half and left the game with concussion-like symptoms.
Four Tar Heel players—Berry, Meeks, Hicks and Luke Maye–ended up with four fouls as a result.
Short on big men, Williams also had no choice but to deploy Jackson as a power forward more often than normal—a decision that can leave the Tar Heels vulnerable inside at times.
Wake Forest mounted its comeback against the Tar Heels’ small-ball line-up in this game, but UNC showed glimpses of a bright future with junior Theo Pinson as a part of that crew.
In just his second game of the season since returning from a broken foot, Pinson scored his first two points of the year and provided a number of great passes that ultimately led to scores.
“Having Theo back, I’ve said all along that he can really help us because he can do so many things,” Williams told reporters. “It gives us some variety and flexibility about what we do.”
For all the bright spots the Tar Heels provided—through their great team offense and Pinson’s steady return to the rotation–Williams couldn’t help but reinforce how upset he was with their defense.
Wake Forest hit 11 three-pointers and ended the game with 20 made foul shots as a direct result of their drive-and-kick approach–a similar strategy used by Georgia Tech in its upset win over the Tar Heels.
Guard Bryant Crawford led the Demon Deacons with 22 points while Brandon Childress—the son of former Wake Forest legend Randolph Childress—added 16 off the bench.
“I’ve never seen a team that was really great, that didn’t play great defense,” Williams said. “I told my guys last year, ‘I’ve never seen a team make it to the Final Four that wasn’t a really good defensive team,’ and down the stretch we were really good defensively.
“There is a thin line,” he added. “But we’ve got to get better defensively.”
It was the third tough ACC road game in as many tries for the Tar Heels, who remain just one of three teams in the league to have less than two losses in conference play. Last week, UNC lost its ACC opener in Atlanta before having to outlast Clemson in overtime.
In their one home game so far against league competition, the Tar Heels crushed NC State by 51 points.
After traveling to Winston Salem for what should have been another fairly easy night, Williams instead came close enough to losing that he recalled the words of his mentor—the late, great Dean Smith.
“Coach Smith was just so much better at every phase than I am–he used to say that ‘If we played well, I can handle the losing,’” Williams said. “I want to win. I don’t care, I told him that too.
“Wake Forest made us play poorly at times in the second half because they really attacked us,” he continued. “We weren’t ready for it. The only thing we were ready to do is start backing up, reaching in and fouling them.”
UNC will return to the Smith Center for a showdown with No. 9 Florida State this Saturday at the Smith Center.
- The Tar Heels improved to 122-4 under Roy Williams when scoring at least 90 points.
- It was the fourth time this season UNC has shot above 50 percent in each half.
- Justin Jackson is now shooting 40 percent from three-point range this season after connecting on three of his five attempts against Wake Forest.
- Wake Forest opened the game on an 8-0 run.