CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s loss that started a downward spiral now seems like it happened in a different season.
The Tar Heels were certainly a different team when they suffered a 73-67 loss at Wake Forest last month. That was the first of an 0-3 start to ACC play which had the Heels at their lowest point. They’ve risen quite a bit since then, avenging their previous defeat by obliterating the Demon Deacons, 105-72, on Saturday for their ninth straight win.
It’s the longest win streak since the 2011-12 squad also won nine. The 2008-09 national championship team was the last to win 10 consecutive.
After the loss at Wake, UNC coach Roy Williams pointed out the team didn’t pay enough attention to the scouting report. After his team's win Saturday, he praised their focus.
“Our kids have shown a greater attention to details,” Williams said. “They’ve shown a greater sense of urgency.”
The Heels’ loss at Wake was filled with botched defensive assignments and poor shooting. The Heels highlighted their win Saturday by shooting 57.4 percent from the field -- the highest for ACC play -- and holding Wake’s leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre scoreless for the first time all season.
More observations from Carolina’s victory:
• Senior Leslie McDonald followed his 21-point performance against Duke by scoring a team-high 19 points against Wake Forest. In both games, he has shot a combined 14 of 21 from the field. In his previous 12 ACC games he was shooting 30 percent (35-116) from the floor.
“He’s been rushing it a little bit, I think, pressing a little bit previously because he is a good shooter,” Williams said. “He’s been shooting it, it’s just not going in. The last two games he is taking better shots. Shot selection is always a huge factor in percentage, but it helps when that first shot goes in.”
The reason for McDonald’s turnaround can be summed up by a first half exchange against the Deacons. McDonald had the ball at the top of the key for a good shot. He passed it up, however, then ran off a screen and got the ball back for a better shot. He knocked down the 3-pointer, one of his five makes for the game.
“I’m not really trying to hunt for my shot, if it’s open, [I] take it, if I see somebody else open, [I] do the right thing,” McDonald said. “I’ve been here for so long so I know what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot so I try to take good shots.”
Williams said McDonald has only taken two bad shots in the past two games.
• Thanks in part to McDonald, Carolina made a season high 11 3-pointers. The Heels shot 73.3 percent from behind the arc (11-for-15), which also set a school record for highest percentage* with at least 10 made in a game.
“Of all the teams to break that record,” Williams said. “Unbelievable.”
Walk-on Wade Moody, who was scoreless all season, came off the bench with the win secured to make both of his 3-point attempts. Nate Britt, who previously only had two made 3s this season, also made one in the game’s closing minutes.
Against better competition, the Heels will remain reliant almost exclusively on Marcus Paige and McDonald for their 3-point shooting. McDonald was 17 of 70 (24.2 percent) in ACC play, but has made six of his last 10. If he can remain hot the Heels will be a tough team to defend.
(*Carolina shot 12 of 15 from 3-point range against Duke on March 5, 1983, but the experimental line back then was just 17 feet, nine inches.)
• Carolina has shot above its season average from the free throw line for three straight halves now. The Heels have shot 62 percent as a team, which could end up being the lowest in school history for a season. Starting with their 13-for-17 performance in the second half against Duke then going 16-of-17 in the first half against Wake and 8-of-12 in the second half, are the Heels starting to turn the corner?
“Nobody can answer that question,” Williams said. “I got 100 letters from people this year who say they can fix free throws. It’s the dumbest damn thing I ever heard in my life. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I’m not the dumbest either. If I could fix it I would have already fixed the thing.”
For a stretch between the end of the Duke game and the first half against Wake, eight different UNC players combined to make 21 consecutive free throws. Williams joked that the “stars and the moon aligned properly.”