With about seven minutes left Saturday afternoon and his Tar Heels leading by a rare double-figure margin, freshman Leslie McDonald looked up at the scoreboard and felt something that has often been lacking by North Carolina down the stretch this season: confidence.
“I was like, ‘Seven more minutes, five more minutes, three more minutes we’ve just got to play, we’ve got this,’’ he said.
And he was right. UNC (15-14, 4-10 ACC) kept its postseason (albeit NIT) hopes alive by beating struggling Wake Forest 77-68 at Lawrence-Joel Coliseum. The win inched the Tar Heels back above .500, and put it just one victory away from the program’s 2,000th win.
The Demon Deacons (18-6, 8-6) meanwhile, lost their third straight. And although they’ve probably already clinched an NCAA at-large berth, they now find themselves in a precarious position as far as earning a first-day ACC tournament bye. Wake entered the day in a three-way tie for third place in the league, and only the top four teams avoid playing on the Thursday of the tourney.
But considering his team shot only 29.7 percent and got only seven points from star forward Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake coach Dino Gaudio said the postseason is the last thing his team should be thinking about at the moment.
“We just need to worry about trying to get better and trying to get a win, because that's all that matters right now,’’ he said. “It's not 'Are we in, are we out, are we on the bubble, off the bubble, have a bye, don't have a bye.' We've just got to play. Those things are so much on the periphery right now of what we need to concentrate on."
The Deacons made the struggling Tar Heels look good from the outset, as point guard Ishmael Smith (5-for-21) missed his first nine shots, Aminu virtually disappeared offensively (2-for-7) and their team produced its worst shooting percentage of the season.
UNC actually led at halftime for the first time in four games, and found itself with a double-figure second half lead --57-47 with 7:18 left, on a Will Graves 3-pointer -- for the first time in recent memory.
The Deacs kept trying to make runs, but unlike past UNC second-half meltdowns – vs. Duke and at Boston College, for instance – the Tar Heels countered.
When Wake’s Ari Stewart followed a David Weaver shot with a 3-pointer with 6:23 left to cut UNC’s lead to 57-52, Graves (13 points) buried another 3-pointer.
When Aminu hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 64-58 with 2:55 left, UNC point guard Larry Drew II (10 points, 4-for-12 from the free throw line) buried a shot from behind the arc.
And when L.D. Williams made a 3-pointer with 59 seconds left to cut it to 71-68, McDonald – who recorded a career-high 16 points, but needed stitches in his chin after the game because he got hit while taking a charge – scored on a layup.
“We just found that poise tonight, and we didn’t let a 5-0 run turn into an 18-0 run, and things like that,’’ said senior Marcus Ginyard, who pulled down a career-high 13 rebounds. “We were just calmer on offense, and we didn’t make as many marginal plays as we’re used to. We took care of the ball, for the most part, and we got shots.”
The Tar Heels, now, are hoping their poise down the stretch of Saturday’s game will carry over to the final stretch of the season. The haven’t given up on making a miraculous conference tournament run, winning four games in four days (which has never been done in the ACC tourney), and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. But they’re more likely playing for a trip to the NIT – which has never taken a team with a losing record.
“There’s no question that we feel like we could have been playing better a long time ago,’’ said Ginyard, whose team shot 40 percent. “But we can’t really do anything about the past, we need to look forward.”