The thought hit Joel Berry, while still on the floor and North Carolina’s first ACC win finally safely in hand.
“This could be good for us,” Berry thought and then told his teammates.
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A 73-69 win over Wake Forest, with a late-rally and a game-winning shot from Berry with 10.3 seconds left, on Saturday at the Smith Center certainly beats the alternative.
No. 13 UNC (12-2, 1-0 ACC) actually lost its previous home game, as a 25-point home favorite, to Wofford on Dec. 20. The Tar Heels also lost last year’s ACC opener at Georgia Tech. The way Wake Forest (7-6, 0-1), a 14-point underdog, was running hot in the second half, it looked like the Tar Heels would drop this one, too.
But when coach Roy Williams went with a smaller lineup, the Tar Heels rallied from a 69-65 deficit to score the game’s final eight points. Berry finished with 16 points, and junior forward Luke Maye led the Tar Heels with 17 points and 15 rebounds.
It was Berry’s running floater – somehow impossibly over the outstretched arms of 7-1 Wake Forest big man Doral Moore – that gave the Heels the lead, 71-69 lead with 10.3 seconds left, for good.
“I knew he was going to take everything in him and try to get up there and block it,” Berry said of Moore, who finished with five blocks. “As soon as I saw that, I knew that I had to put it up high.
“I shot it higher than usual. It’s a shot that I work on. It just went it and it’s a shot that we needed to go in.”
It actually looked like UNC would pull away from the Deacs after a Kenny Williams steal and dunk gave the Heels a 62-53 lead at 8:40. Then the Deacs got three straight 3-pointers, the last from guard Bryant Crawford (17 points) at 6:58, to tie the score at 62.
That stretch, and Wake’s second-half shooting (15-of-30), is what caught coach Williams’ ire.
“Happy to win, not pleased at all, not satisfied at all,” Williams said. “Wake Forest, I thought, was much more aggressive than we were.”
Wake was up 66-65, with 3:06 left, when Williams went with his smaller lineup, the one with Berry at the point, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the wings, and Theo Pinson and Luke Maye at the forward spots. That lineup had closed the first half by outscoring Wake 11-3 in the final 2:28. Williams didn’t go back to it until the end of the game.
Williams, who prefers to have two traditional bigs on the floor for rebounding purposes, said he went with the smaller lineup for defensive purposes.
“I like those guys being able to make adjustments during the game is what it boiled down to,” Williams said. “I trusted them more, I guess, is what you could say.”
That lineup was plus-11, outscoring Wake 17-6, and had an 11-3 rebounding advantage in 5:33 on the floor together.
Williams, who was irritated by his team’s intensity level, wasn’t ready to praise the unusual “small ball” lineup.
“I wish I had a lineup that I liked today because I did not see one out there,” Williams said.
Maybe Williams didn’t like it, but Pinson, who finished with eight points, seven rebounds and six assists, is a fan.
“It’s a luxury for me, if I’m being selfish about it,” Pinson said. “If you don’t stop me, I’m going to make a play. If you do, I’ve got shooters around me, and I’m going to be able to find somebody.”
It was Pinson’s drive and assist to Maye which cut Wake’s lead to 69-67 with 1:59 left.
After Crawford missed a 3, Pinson was fouled on the next possession and made both free throws to tie the score at 69.
Moore caught Kenny Williams in a mismatch and was fouled with 34.1 seconds left and then missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Berry’s looping teardrop came on UNC’s next possession and then Keyshawn Woods missed a potential game-winning 3 with 5 seconds left.
Williams closed it out with a pair of free throws and then Berry exhaled.
“I told the guys, it wasn’t pretty, but it’s a win,” Berry said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio