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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.--- North Carolina entered Sunday night's Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Wake Forest looking to shake off a growing reputation this season for playing down to its level of competition and struggling to put supposedly-inferior teams away.
The jury's still out as to whether Wake Forest (11-3, 1-0 ACC) is a better team than UNC, as the teams will play again in Chapel Hill February 22 and possibly a third time in the ACC Tournament, but the Demon Deacons were the better team when it counted in Sunday's 73-67 triumph over the No. 19 Tar Heels (10-4, 0-1 ACC), which could drop Carolina again out of the national polls.
"It was a great win for Jeff (Bdzelik) and his staff," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately after the game. "I would've liked for us to play better."
UNC managed to out-offensive rebound the Demon Deacons 24-8 and in total rebounds 53-34, but Wake went to the free throw line 22 more times than Carolina.
And while they're the worst-shooting free throw shooting team in the ACC---even worse than UNC---the Deacons made 19 free throws, compared to just seven for UNC.
"19 out of 33 (converted) free throws for them (Wake Forest) and seven for 11 for us," said Williams. "We've got to be more aggressive and attack the basket instead of shying away from everything."
"We kept hanging around because we were doing a good job rebounding the ball but we weren't finishing the plays when we got the offensive rebounds," Williams added. "You look down (at the postgame stat sheet) and you have 24 offensive rebounds. That should be more than 17 points. We weren't tough enough, physical enough, strong enough, explosive enough to finish the plays at that point."
The Tar Heels and Deacons were equally dreadful from three-point range, as the teams combined to shoot a miserable four-of-27 from behind the arc, but Wake Forest only committed four turnovers in the first half in building a 34-32 halftime advantage.
UNC led 19-12 early on after a basket by Leslie McDonald, but then Wake Forest went on a 9-1 run over three minutes to take the lead. The teams traded baskets for much of the rest of the first half, but after a layup by Devin Thomas at the 15:25 mark of the second half---which gave the Deacons a 40-38 lead---they never trailed again.
That go-ahead basket by Thomas kick-started a 15-4 run for Wake Forest that gave them a 13-point lead (53-40) at the midway point of the second half and made the remainder of the game a desperate effort for UNC to crawl back within striking range.
The Deacs were consistent, shooting an even 48 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes and 48.3 percent in the second 20 minutes, while for the game committing a reasonably-low 13 turnovers (UNC had 17).
"I thought turning the basketball over---unforced turnovers---is what really killed us," said Williams.
Carolina would get as close as 64-61 after a dunk by J.P. Tokoto at the 1:59 mark, and after a steal Tokoto actually had a shot that could have pulled UNC within one point. That shot missed its mark and bounded towards the top of the key, leading to a fast break by Wake Forest.
Travis McKie took a pass on a two-on-one break and laid the ball in momentarily after getting slapped on the wrist by Nate Britt, and that three-point play at 1:03 essentially put the game on ice for the Demon Deacons.
"We got it to a one possession game (in the final two minutes), and then we took shots that we rushed and probably should've taken a few more seconds to get a better shot," said Williams about UNC's performance in the last couple minutes of the game.
McKie led all scorers with 16 points, one of four Wake Forest players in double figures in scoring. James Michael McAdoo led UNC in scoring with 13 points, adding three rebounds, while Tokoto and Brice Johnson each had 12 points and nine rebounds.
It's a monster win for beleaguered Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who had yet to beat North Carolina through three prior seasons in Winston-Salem.
"I want to thank our fans," said Bzdelik. "Our fans were really there for us. Just a great team effort by our team. We all stood out. Just a great team effort. We did a good job."
"They're a very, very good offensive rebounding team. Give them a lot of credit in that regard, but we did a good job. Only four turnovers in the first half."
UNC doesn't get much time to feel sorry for itself, as they returned to Chapel Hill immediately after the game in order to return for classes Monday morning. They'll return to game action Wednesday night with a 9:00 pm game in the Smith Center against Miami.