WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – The first half of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast Conference basketball schedule resulted in home games against its trio of in-state rivals with the Tar Heels losing all three games by a combined 69 points. It appears as if the return visits aren't going to be much easier.
Josh Howard scored 24 points and Antwan Scott added 15 as the Wake Forest Demon Deacons rolled over the hapless Heels, 90-66, before a sellout - but not completely full house - crowd of 13,523 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
"It's difficult to talk about this game," UNC coach Matt Doherty said in his opening remarks to the media. "They were certainly sensational but that was due in large part to our defense. It was nonexistent in the first half. It was just an awful performance."
UNC's ballhandling was nearly as bad.
The Tar Heels turned it over 24 times – 13 in the first half – while the Deacons registered 14 steals for the game, most of which led to easy baskets, making UNC's already struggling defensive numbers appear worse.
"Regardless of the defense you always feel when you make mistakes there were things you could do differently, and this game was no different," said UNC guard Adam Boone when asked about the team's ballhandling problems. "Their defense was very good. I think they took away a lot of our options but at the same time you just have to be strong enough and tough enough with the ball that you can get around those things and I just wasn't able to do that."
UNC (6-14, 2-8) has fallen victim more often in a season just twice before and with at least eight games remaining this is already the third losingest team in school history.
Furthermore, the Tar Heels have matched their previous mark for most ACC losses in a season and have now lost nine of their 10 games played in 2002. They are also 1-6 on the road.
"At the beginning of each game I feel like we can win the game," said junior forward Will Johnson (two points in 15 minutes). "But the mistakes can't keep repeating themselves."
Wake (17-6, 7-3) opened the game red-hot from the field although the Tar Heels countered enough to trail just 13-8 at the first media timeout. UNC, however, then went scoreless over the next 5:22 while Wake ran off 11 straight points. During the run, the Heels turned the ball over five times and experienced numerous breakdowns on defense.
Carolina, however, battled back to cut the margin to 24-15 after a stretch of feisty team defense and some heady play by senior Jason Capel.
After Capel knocked down a pair of free throws to end the drought, he fed Jackie Manuel for a 3-pointer after a Jawad Williams steal. Williams followed with a slam after Capel stole a pass in a rugby-like scrum near midcourt and led Williams with a beautiful pass while falling to the floor.
But Wake quickly responded with an 8-2 run to lead 33-17 with 5:57 left. The Deacons closed the half by scoring on 13 of their final 15 possessions and led at the intermission, 54-31.
"It's mainly just the lapses we have on defense and you can't pinpoint one thing – a lapse on defense is a lapse on defense, plain and simple," UNC senior Kris Lang said. "Because a lapse on defense leads to fast break points or they just get an extra possession. And that is something that is just draining."
The second half was no better for the Tar Heels.
Wake opened on a 15-8 run seemingly scoring at will from wherever it wanted, forcing UNC to call a timeout with 13:38 left to play and trailing 69-38. And at this point, the game was essentially over.
Wake's biggest lead was at 71-38 with 13:02 left.
Darius Songaila, Taron Downey and Broderick Hicks chipped in 10 points each with the freshman Downey registering five steals.
Lang led the Heels with 14 points followed by Brian Morrison's 13 and Capel's 10.
UNC's four guards combined for four assists and 15 turnovers, seven by Boone, six of which came in the first 17 minutes of the contest.
The real story, however, wasn't so much this particular game but rather how nearly each game appears to take on similar characteristics, but the Heels performance slides just a bit more.
Every aspect of the team's defense worsens. The offensive movement, crispness of cutting, passing and intelligent shot selection deteriorates with each effort. And with it has gone the team's confidence, despite claims otherwise.
"I know I keep saying this but I believe we are confident," Lang said in a despondent locker room.
He may be but his mates don't appear as optimistic, and it appears to be taking its toll.
"Time is running out on the season," Johnson said. "We have two choices: We can either turn it around or we can fold, and I don't think we're gonna fold. But we need to pick it up."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.