Little time to savor Duke win as UNC meets Wake at noon

Feb. 21, 2014 @ 10:13 PM

North Carolina doesn’t have much time to move on from its most emotional win of the season.

Almost 36 hours after students rushed the court to celebrate a 74-66 win over No. 5 Duke, UNC will be back at the Smith Center today to take on Wake Forest (12:07 p.m., WRAL).

Thursday’s court-storming capped an exhilarating night for the Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4), who broke a two-game home losing streak against the Blue Devils by outscoring them 34-15 over the final 15 minutes.

“Our crowd was sensational the whole game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Even when we were down, they were into it. We would like to have them that enthusiastic against everybody. Last year it was electric on senior day and then they came out and hit us right in the mouth with (14) points in a row. It was the only negative thought I had before the game sitting on the bench: ‘I hope we don’t let the (crowd) down.’”

Strong second-half defense and a 43-30 rebounding edge ensured that wouldn’t happen. Now the Tar Heels have now won eight in a row heading into their game against Wake Forest (14-12, 4-9).

UNC has had big wins before — it’s the first team since 1961, when the AP first released a preseason poll, to beat the top four teams from the start of the year. But the Tar Heels weren’t able to carry the momentum over from wins over No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 3 Louisville during the non-conference season — UNC lost to UAB after beating Louisville and lost to Texas after beating Kentucky.

The Tar Heels have become much better at keeping their intensity level consistent from game to game during the recent winning streak. And while the Demon Deacons have struggled mightily on the road — their only win in eight games was against last-place Virginia Tech — Wake Forest beat the Tar Heels 73-67 in Winston-Salem in the ACC opener, which should ensure that UNC stays focused today.

The bigger issue for the Tar Heels could be fatigue — because the UNC-Duke game was originally postponed because of inclement weather, the Tar Heels will be playing their fourth game in eight days.

Leading scorer Marcus Paige in particular has had a heavy workload, playing at least 36 minutes in each of UNC’s last six games. But that hasn’t caught up to him yet. After a scoreless first half against Duke, Paige had 13 second-half points to key the comeback effort. It was the 11th time this season that Paige had four points or fewer in the first half and then scored in double figures in the second half.

If Paige does struggle, the Tar Heels have had different players step up in recent games. Last Saturday against No. 25 Pittsburgh it was junior James Michael McAdoo, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds. Monday at Florida State it was freshman Kennedy Meeks, who had a career-high 23 points. And Thursday it was senior Leslie McDonald, who had a game-high and season-high 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting.

McDonald, who was 5 of 24 from the floor in his three previous outings, made a 3-pointer in the first possession against Duke and also made the go-ahead basket with 3:54 remaining.

“It’s an honor,” McDonald said. “You see the video boards and you see the great players doing great things and making great plays. Just being able to go out there and give it my all and being in that type of environment, it means so much to me. I tip my hat out to all the former players and hopefully we made them proud.”

There likely won’t be many videos made about today’s game against Wake Forest, but the Tar Heels will still need to keep their energy level up after an exhausting week.

“We’re riding high right now,” Paige said Thursday night. “We understand it’s a quick turnaround. We play Wake on Saturday, we’ve got to focus on that, but we’ve got to enjoy this one. This is a big win for us, and it proves to a lot of people that those wins early in the season — our potential that we showed — we’re starting to get there. This team can make a deep run if we keep working, and we can beat any team in the country if we play to our potential.”

NOTES — In celebration of Black History Month, UNC will honor African-American pioneers Charlie Scott, Courtney Bumpers, Robyn Hadley and Ricky Lanier at halftime.

Scott was the first black scholarship athlete at UNC and became a three-time NBA All-Star. Lanier was the Tar Heels’ first black football player, Hadley was a UNC women’s basketball player who became a Rhodes Scholar and Bumpers is still the only UNC gymnast to win a national championship. … For today’s game, the Tar Heels will wear throwback 1980s-style uniforms made by Nike.