CHAPEL HILL--- Tuesday night's home tilt against Wake Forest was the kind of game that North Carolina knew it needed to stay in the upper third of the ACC standings, yet it was one the Tar Heels couldn't afford to take for granted.
Although the Demon Deacons have been atrocious at times this winter in road losses at places such as Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Maryland, they came out and played its longtime Tobacco Road rival hard through most of a physical first half before UNC's size, athleticism, and hot shooting took control.
And then it became a 'Here we go again' kind of game for Wake Forest.
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UNC used a 15-1 run over the last five and a half minutes of the first half to build a 20-point halftime advantage (47-27) on its way to a lopsided 87-62 triumph over the beleaguered Demon Deacs, who have yet to win away from Winston-Salem in ACC play this winter so far.
Wake Forest had its hands full with a UNC team that shot a blazing 18 of 29 (62.1 percent) from the field in the first half, including a healthy five-of-nine (55.6 percent) from three-point land.
Ten different players scored in the first half for the Tar Heels, and twelve over the course of the game.
"I thought it was a good night for us," said UNC's Roy Williams, who watched his team win its third straight game to improve to 16-6 overall and 6-3 at the halfway point of ACC regular season play.
Neither team got off to a particularly hot start, as UNC briefly led 13-5 in the first seven minutes before the action picked up.
Midway through the opening half both teams starting draining shots, and with Wake Forest turning the ball over regularly, UNC continued to stretch its lead out until Reggie Bullock beat the buzzer with a three pointer to give Carolina its 20-point cushion at the intermission.
UNC picked up 18 points off Wake Forest's 13 rebounds over the first 20 minutes, and finished the game taking advantage of 21 total Deacon turnovers for 38 points.
"I think that Jeff (Bzdelik's) team didn't play nearly as well as he wanted them to play, and they missed shots they would normally make," said Williams. "I thought defensively we were pretty good in the first half."
"Obviously the emphasis going into this game was not to turn the ball over, something that we worked on," added Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik. "Obviously we did a terrible job of that."
It made for an anticlimactic second half, as the Tar Heels kept making shots and continued to take advantage of Wake Forest's sloppy ball handling. UNC finished the night shooting 51.6 percent from the floor (32-of-62), with three players scoring in double figures, led by Bullock's 23 points and James Michael McAdoo's 20 points.
"Everyone would agree that those are our two main guys on the offensive end and probably most consistent," said freshman point guard Marcus Paige. "To have them put up big numbers makes it easier for all of us."
With the game well in hand in the second half, Williams tinkered with different lineups and made some low-pressure assessments during the final 20 minutes, while also getting P.J. Hairston more comfortable back on the court.
Hairston returned for his first game since last week's concussion at Boston College, drawing a loud ovation from the crowd and chants of 'P.J., P.J.' from the student risers.
While he only played 12 minutes, Hairston was the third Tar Heel in double figures, scoring 11 points on three-of-four shooting from the field and two three-pointers.
"I was going to try to give him (Hairston) no more than two or three minutes at a time. I guess he got 12 minutes," said Williams. "It was good to see him back in there, but Reggie and James Michael were a pretty big force to put the ball in the basket."
From here, UNC returns to the road to face the ACC's only remaining undefeated team in Miami.
The Hurricanes have dazzled the league so far this season, picking up wins over Duke, N.C. State, and North Carolina, proving their worth against the conference's anticipated powerhouses.
UNC heads into the rematch in Coral Gables on a three-game win streak and with confidence running high that the Tar Heels can finally put the 'Canes in the loss column.
"We are still right around the corner from it (being the team we want to be)," said Bullock. "In the game today (against Wake) there were some great stretches that we had, but there were still some stretches that could have done a lot better."
"Once we put a whole game together fully, I feel like we'll be a top 25, a top team in the country."
UNC fans can only hope that Bullock and the rest of the Tar Heels can figure out a way to put together that whole game Saturday in South Beach.