Tar Heels brace for only matchup with Wake Forest

Friday, January 14th 2005, 6:34 pm
By: News On 6

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) _ Raymond Felton vs. Chris Paul. Rashad McCants vs. Justin Gray. Sean May vs. Eric Williams.

When third-ranked North Carolina travels to No. 4 Wake Forest on Saturday, the matchup has a little bit of everything.

``I have played 12 times (against) May,'' said Williams, the Demon Deacons' center. ``It tells you something about someone's game when you've played against somebody for so long. Because of that, you have to add a little something to your personal game.''

The teams are playing for the first time with both ranked in the top five, and because of a quirk in the scheduling for the newly expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, this will be their only game of the season.

Last December, the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons battled through three overtimes in Chapel Hill before Wake Forest finally prevailed 119-114, and this one should be played at a similar pace.

``I certainly will watch that game,'' Maryland coach Gary Williams said. ``Both teams will play good defense and yet both will probably score 100 points.''

He has more than a passing interest. The Terrapins completed a two-game swing through Tobacco Road with lopsided losses to the Tar Heels and the Deacons, falling behind early and making the second half of each game meaningless.

In fact, North Carolina hasn't been pushed since a seven-point victory at Indiana back in December. The Tar Heels have won 14 straight and recently finished a perfect six-game homestand, during which they won by an average of 31 points.

Coach Roy Williams doesn't expect this game to be as easy.

``I think that both teams will play really, really hard defensively, and most of the time when that happens, it's difficult to have a free-flowing game where you score over 100,'' he said. ``Both teams want to play at such a fast tempo, I wouldn't be shocked, but this could be one of those ugly games, too.''

One of the most exciting battles will be among the point guards. Felton was suspended for the Tar Heels' opening loss to Santa Clara, and they haven't lost since he returned.

Paul, his counterpart, was the leading vote-getter on The Associated Press' preseason All-America team. Felton leads the ACC with 7.6 assists a game, with Paul second at 6.4.

``You can't look at no game as an individual matchup,'' Felton said. ``That's when you start messing up, that's when you start losing the ball and taking crazy shots. He's going to do what he's doing to, and I'm going to do what I do. All I'm worried about is getting a win.''

The Deacons reached No. 1 for the first time back in November on the strength of their run to the Preseason NIT title, and their only loss is at current No. 1 Illinois. They're 3-0 in the ACC, with the 15-point victory over Maryland the closest of the three.

``Because we're consistently playing top-notch teams, they bring out the best and the worst,'' Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. ``The Illinois game brought out the worst, and Carolina could be either one.''

At shooting guard, good friends McCants and Gray can score at will. McCants averaged a league-best 20 points a game last season, and Gray is coming off perhaps the best back-to-back games of his career.

Against Clemson, he made his first five 3-pointers and tied his career high of 31 points, then connected on a season-high six 3s on his way to 25 points against Maryland.

``We both have a great ability to score and we both elevate each other's play,'' Gray said. ``When we play them on Saturday, I know I'm going to leave it on the court. It's going to be a great game.''

The fact that this is the only meeting _ at least in the regular season _ adds another twist.

``This game is for bragging rights right now,'' Gray said. ``I want to step up and help my team as much as possible. I don't want to be embarrassed to walk around at home, I want to play hard and win.''