WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Wake Forest again reminded No. 11 North Carolina that Winston-Salem is not Maui. Neither is Atlanta, where the Tar Heels lost their ACC opener to Georgia Tech 75-63. Neither is Clemson, South Carolina, where they trailed for most of regulation and needed overtime to escape with an 89-86 win.
The Tar Heels got past the Demon Deacons 93-87 after nearly losing a 19-point lead in the second half. They resembled very little the players who set the standard of how they want to play back in November in the Maui Invitational.
Carolina breezed past Chaminade, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin by sharing the ball and attacking offensively, and it played its best stretch of defense all season. Not only did the Tar Heels hold all three teams to less than 40 percent shooting, but also the Badgers were the only team of the three to shoot more than 40 percent in a half, and the baskets that raised their percentage came after they trailed by 25 and the outcome was decided.
The Heels have been chasing that level of play ever since.
"We attacked the teams. It was hard for them to score," junior guard Joel Berry II said. "If we can get back to playing defense like we did in Maui, that will be great for us."
The Heels have had snapshots of Maui since then. Even in the 103-100 loss to Kentucky, perhaps the most entertaining game of the college basketball season so far, they played well against an elite opponent. On Sunday, in their 107-56 win over NC State, the Tar Heels played with the urgency and intensity they had on the island.
"Early in Maui, I think, we were on track to be a great team," senior guard Nate Britt said. "We've digressed since then."
They did in the second half against Wake Forest, which, coincidentally, last beat a ranked team when it topped then-No. 13 Indiana in Maui last season.
The Heels looked ready to break the game open when they increased their 15-point halftime lead to 57-38 on a Berry layup with 18:06 remaining. Then freshman forward Tony Bradley sat out the second half because of concussion-like symptoms after he hit his head on the floor in a collision with Wake's Dinos Mitoglou.
North Carolina was forced to play with a smaller lineup for a longer stretch than it had all season. That matchup favored the Deacons. Their bigs got into foul trouble trying to keep Carolina off the boards and out of the paint, but Wake Forest's perimeter shooting was built for small ball.
The Deacons consistently drove the ball to the basket and either got fouled or got open shots en route to shooting 50 percent from the field in the second half. The Deacs made 11 3-pointers, which marked the second time in the past three games that Carolina allowed that many.
"We had a spark early in the second, and it looked like we were about to run away with it," junior Theo Pinson said. "We had to respond, and we did, and I'm glad we came away with the win."
North Carolina coach Roy Williams admitted that his team lost a bit of its focus. With Pinson in his second game back from a foot injury, the Heels used both him and Justin Jackson in a four-guard lineup that hasn't had much practice time.
"I was disappointed because when the other team is playing zone, I wanted him to be the guy inside and Justin outside," Williams said. "It took us three possessions to get it straight about where they're supposed to be."
Offensive miscues have never been the problem for the Heels. Generally, they find ways to score at a high rate. It's their defense that has Williams conjuring up Maui. He lamented the team's inability to stop dribble penetration against Wake Forest. That will be a problem if the Heels are unable to fix it Saturday, when No. 9 Florida State visits Chapel Hill.
"You've got to have some confidence, some discipline and some toughness on the defensive end of the floor," Williams said. "I've never seen a team that's great that didn't play defense."
Britt said that something about Maui made the team play carefree and stay "lost in the game." If the team can recapture that spirit, he says he believes the Final Four is a realistic destination.
"We were in Maui. Everybody's having a great time," Britt said. "That's the kind of attitude we have to have the rest of the season."