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CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina left absolutely nothing to chance Saturday afternoon it its rematch with Wake Forest in the Smith Center. Coming off a stunning loss to the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem back on January 5, UNC came out and shot 57 percent for the game---including a stellar 61.3 percent shooting clip (19 of 31) in the second half---on its way to a lopsided 105-72 blowout.
The win is North Carolina's ninth straight, while the Tar Heels also picked up its 20th victory of the season against seven losses.
"'I told them (the UNC players), 'It would be easy for me to get up if somebody had beaten my rear end last time. I wouldn't have any problems if it were four games in eight days or eight games in four days. I'd be ready to play their rear end,' because they did---they (Wake Forest) whacked us the last time," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards.
As it stands now, these are a pair of teams going in opposite directions, as the loss was Wake Forest's seventh in a row. The Demon Deacons are going down in flames in what could be Jeff Bzdelik's final weeks as head coach.
The game was largely uncompetitive from the get-go, as UNC came out shooting well early and built a double-digit lead before the game was hardly ten minutes old. They led by seven points at the first TV timeout, and never looked back.
"In the first half I thought for a long stretch early we weren't into it. We were just trying to out-score them. Then I thought we did get a little bit better defensively. But it was just one of those games where we shot the ball really well. The ball went into the basket. We made free throws," said Coach Williams.
UNC led by 19 points (52-33) at halftime, as the Tar Heels rained down a barrage of jumpers and high-percentage lay-ins against the helpless Demon Deacons' resistance.
Carolina shot a healthy 35 of 61 from the floor (57.4 percent) over the game's first 20 minutes, putting Wake Forest in a hole that they had no chance of climbing out of.
"You've heard me say this a thousand times. Everything looks so much better when the ball goes into the basket. And that's what happened tonight," said Williams. "The guys did a nice job staying focused after that first six or seven minutes of the game. I thought right before the half we had a nice little run to stretch it out to 19 (points)."
But in a sign that can only be seen as promising on the UNC side, the Tar Heels came out and played even more impressively in the second half.
Refusing to coast their way through the remaining minutes, UNC shot even better in the second half and continued to fight for loose balls and rebounds.
Wake Forest, on the other end, seemed like cast members in 'The Walking Dead,' as the Demon Deacons showed overt emotions of checking out or whatever other cliche could be applied to a team that played like it was badly beaten and knew it.
Leslie McDonald paced six Tar Heels in double figures with 19 points, connecting on five-of-six three-pointer attempts, and making all four of his free throws.
McDonald was joined in double figures by Kennedy Meeks, who scored 15 points on six-of-seven shooting, Marcus Paige, who had 13 points with three three-pointers in five attempts, and J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo, who each tallied 11 points.
"Six guys in double figures---all five starters. A lot of things to like out there today. But the ball going into the basket was the best thing," said Williams.
UNC seemingly could do no wrong, making 11 of 15 three-pointers (73.3)---easily the best long-range shooting output in a single game this season---while also making 24 out of 29 free throws (82.8 percent).
The Tar Heels moved the ball around expertly, producing 24 assists against just 10 turnovers, while out-rebounding the Demon Deacons 35-24.
Every meaningful offensive and defensive statistic (with exception of bench points) was dominated by the Tar Heels. UNC led in points in the paint (38-32), fast break points (10-2), second-chance points (16-10), offensive rebounds (12-7), points off turnovers (22-15), blocks (3-1), and steals (5-4).
The Tar Heels can now breath a collective sigh of relief, having completed its run of four games in eight days totally unscathed.
"It's amazing that you have the legs doing four games in eight days, and still be that fresh. Four games in eight days is not easy by any means," said Williams. "You've got to feel good about playing four games in eight days. If I were a player, I'd love that. I try to go to the positive side of it. The other thing is shorter practice (time). You've got plenty of time to get your legs back. You have to handle it mentally."
"It's what it is. Let's go play, not make any excuses. We got a big win (over Duke). This win here (over Wake) was just as important as Thursday night."
Where some might have suggested that UNC was still on the NCAA Tournament bubble as recently as prior to last Saturday's game against Pittsburgh, those same people now must readily acknowledge that North Carolina is not only comfortably in the Big Dance this March, but with each passing game playing its way toward a higher seeding.
"Our kids have shown a lot greater attention to details. They've shown a greater sense of urgency. We've played pretty good basketball here this whole stretch (of nine wins), not just these eight days. Again, when the ball goes into the basket, everything looks better," Williams replied.
With an RPI that will almost certainly be in the Top 20 by next week, wins against all four of the preseason top four teams in the AP poll (Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville, Duke), 20 victories yet again, and a nine-game winning streak heading into the home stretch, North Carolina is one of the hottest teams in the country---and a school that nobody wants to see on their side of the bracket a month from now.
But as Williams mentioned, the regular season is still not over, as UNC has a trio of road games---at N.C. State and Virginia Tech this week, and then Duke to conclude the regular season March 8---as well as Senior Night March 3 against Notre Dame.
Certainly it's no time to get complacent.
"Tomorrow (Sunday) is going to be off, and then we'll go back to work on Monday. It's a long season. You can't catch your breath, and say, 'That's really good,'" Williams said.
"We've got four left, and I would assume everybody has about four left. So we're not different from anybody else. Three on the road. The bottom line is it's not the end of the season, and you've got to keep playing."