Wake Forest might never rise to equality with beloved North Carolina, popular NC State or despised Duke in the hearts and minds of this state's manic Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fans. But the longtime little brother of the state powerhouses made clear on Saturday that in the ACC standing, Wake Forest is second to none right now.
In a game crucial not only to the conference hierarchy and the national ranking but to the fragile collective psyche of Wake Forest fans, the host Demon Deacons, ranked No. 4, showed unexpected poise during a 95-82 victory over No. 3 North Carolina in front of a crowd of 14,665 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
In fact, it showed record-making poise. Wake Forest (15-1), averaging 66 percent from the free-throw line this season, set an ACC mark by hitting 32 of 32 free throws against North Carolina (14-2).
"This means a lot because Wake Forest has come a long way," said Chris Paul, Wake Forest's sophomore guard, who lifted his team to 4-0 atop the ACC. "Growing up here in Winston-Salem, the buzz has never been like it is now. And just knowing that we have so many different guys on our team from North Carolina, it means a little bit more. We understand the rivalry."
And nobody understands it better than Paul, the point guard who was voted to the preseason all-America team. In a conference defined largely by its point guards, Paul has emerged as the best of an elite group.
In a head-to-head matchup on Saturday, Paul outplayed Raymond Felton, the highly touted North Carolina junior. Paul scored a game-high 26 points, adding 8 assists, 5 steals and 6 rebounds while committing only a single turnover. Felton had 16 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds and 3 steals, but shot 5 of 18 from the field, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range. Felton was shooting 51.9 percent on 3-pointers, best in the conference.
"Chris has an ability to get it to the basket and finish the play even though he's slight of build," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "He's not an Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he might be when it comes to heart."
Paul was 9 of 9 from the free-throw line, leading Wake Forest as it extended its winning streak to nine games, snapping North Carolina's 14-game run. The Demon Deacons needed those points from the line as North Carolina overcame a 17-point deficit at 64-47 with 12 minutes 18 seconds remaining and closed to within 7 points twice in the final 1:49. North Carolina junior guard-forward Rashad McCants, limited by foul trouble throughout the game, scored on a layup with 49.2 seconds left to cut Wake Forest's lead to 89-82.
But Paul, guard Taron Downey and forward Vytas Danelius each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to seal the victory.
"I think if you follow us, you will see that as an aberration," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said of the team's free-throw shooting. "We needed all 32 of those, especially down the stretch."
McCants finished with 19 points to lead North Carolina despite playing just 20 minutes because of foul trouble. He wasn't the only Tar Heel who was missing for large stretches of the game. The junior forward Sean May failed to provide an inside presence, finishing with a hardly noticed 9 points and 9 rebounds against steady double-teaming under the basket by the Demon Deacons.
Prosser wasn't about to revel in the victory.