Howard's three-point play gave the Demon Deacons the lead for good with 21.4 seconds left and Wake held off UNC, 79-75, before a boisterous sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean E. Smith Center on Sunday night.
"First, I just want to say that I am really proud of our team, especially our defensive effort," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "I think that our guys really got after it and put us in the position to win the basketball game against a very talented Wake Forest team."
Frustrated in the second half because of the physical nature of the game and having to carry his mates, Howard, who finished with 32 points and 10 rebounds, showed why he is the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading candidate for Player of the Year.
Three times in the last eight-plus minutes he broke a tie game; at 60-60, 70-70, and 75-75. And without him, Wake (15-2, 5-2 ACC) could have been run out of the building.
"He's a great player," UNC's Jawad Williams said. "He's an all-ACC player for a reason. We tried to stop him but he was just on tonight. Great players play big in tight games, and he was big tonight."
Even with Howard completely on his game, Carolina (11-9, 2-5) could have, and some may say should have, won. But as has been the case in nearly every game, the Tar Heels suffered an ugly offensive drought in the first half, and victimized themselves at the free throw line enough to finish on the short end of the scoreboard.
"We had some open looks and they just didn't go down," said Manuel. "But we picked it up on defense and that's what kept us in the game."
Yet Carolina still had its chances.
Appearing on the verge of being blown out several times in the first half, the Heels' stingy defense prevented Wake from pulling away. But in the second half, the defense, which held the Deacs to just 33.3 percent from the field in the first half, was torched for 65.4% (17-26).
"I thought our defense played real well in the second half," Manuel said. "But they got some good looks, there were a couple of breakdowns."
Yet Jawad Williams kept the Heels close by scoring 16 of his 22 points in the final period. And when UNC needed a bucket trailing by three with 12 seconds left, Williams was called on, but missed a 3 from the left perimeter. Wake grabbed the rebound – one of 47 for the Deacs compared to just 30 for UNC – and salted the game away at the line on Taron Downey's free throw for the final margin.
"I knew they were going to switch out, and I figured if I rose up I could either draw a foul or get my shot off," Williams said of the last shot. "Josh Howard got away with one, but that's part of life.
Williams also said the shot was designed for him, as well as the timing.
"We figured if we got the shot off we could run back down the court and get another stop."
Vytas Danelius added 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Demon Deacons and Jamaal Levy chipped in 11.
Raymond Felton and Manuel tallied 11 points for the Tar Heels, who head to Duke on Wednesday night riding a four-game losing streak.
Doherty's decision not to start McCants was performance based, mainly from the freshman's difficult defensive night at Georgia Tech on Wednesday.
"I talk about starting as a reward for different things and I preach defense, so I have to back it up," UNC's third-year coach said. "David Noel is one of our best defenders and it was time that I needed to reward David for his defensive effort."
McCants said the decision, which he learned on Friday, was because of recent poor showings.
"My performance dropped, I'm in a basketball slump, if you wanna call it freshman (slump) or whatever. I don't know. I didn't start."
But even with McCants in the apparent doghouse, the Heels would have likely won had any number of things gone a bit more favorably for the home team. Another made basket or two, another one or two converted layups, and of course, a slightly different rebounding margin could have ended their skid.
"They're aggressive," Williams said about the Deacons – the ACC's leading rebounding team. "They do a great job of boxing out. We have to do a better job of boxing out."
The Tar Heels began the game strong, opening up a 13-7 lead on the strength of intense man-to-man defense and Noel's activity around the basket. And after Felton nailed a 3-pointer, UNC led 16-10 with 11:41 left in the half. However, the Demon Deacons then shut down Carolina – with a little help from the Heels – and while riding on Howard's back, turned that deficit into a 35-25 advantage, limiting UNC to a single field goal over a 7:16 stretch that ended with Damion Grant's layup with 1:17 remaining before halftime. Carolina trailed 35-29 at the intermission.
Yet regardless of all of the what ifs and would haves and could haves, the Tar Heels are reeling, and being the youngest team in the nation, their confidence could be cracking.
"We just have to learn from it, forget about it, and lets move on," said Manuel. "We have another game to play."
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.