CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They came at Wake Forest from every conceivable angle in the building, a relentless wave of Carolina blue that saturated everything in its path.
There was band director Jim Hile, who twice strode to the middle of Smith Center during timeouts to exhort the fans. There was the imitation Blues Brothers act, heels kicking, fingers pointing. There was the crowd of 21,572 that turned the Dean Dome into a raucous yet magical piece of real estate.
Most importantly, there were the North Carolina Tar Heels themselves, who careened from their worst half in 14 years to claim one of the most spectacular comebacks in their storied history.
When No. 11 Carolina wiped out an 18-point second-half deficit to beat No. 9 Wake Forest, 65-59, yesterday, it took these Tar Heels to new heights.
"That's the loudest the fans have been since I've been here," said Dante Calabria, Carolina's standout senior guard. "My message to them is, 'You should do it every game.' If they do it every time, it'd be a real home-court advantage."
For the youngsters like freshman Vince Carter, the din of the Smith Center played a palpable part in the improbable comeback.
"They were really into it," he said of the fans. "There was a lot of energy tonight. The crowd noise got Wake frustrated and we took advantage of it."
Carter's reverse dunk off a lob pass from Jeff McInnis brought the house down at the buzzer, capping a torrid run in which Carolina outscored Wake Forest 42-18 over the final 17 minutes.
The victory lifted the Tar Heels (15-4) into a first-place tie with Georgia Tech at 6-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Demon Deacons (13-3, 5-2) slipped to third.
Almost as noteworthy, those histrionics even made Carolina coach Dean Smith grin in giddy delight. "This is exciting," he said. "It's more fun this way."
The first 20 minutes were anything but giddy for Carolina, though. The Heels shot a measly 26.9 percent from the field, went nearly eight minutes without a point and were looking up at a 32-18 halftime deficit.
The 18 points represented the fewest in a half for Carolina since Dec. 4, 1982, when it scored only nine in the first half against LSU at the Meadowlands. Curiously, Carolina won that one, too, 47-43.
Things got worse before they got better against Wake. When Tim Duncan scored over Serge Zwikker, 2:36 into the second half, the Deacons were cruising at 41-23.
That's when Carolina's man-to-man defense dug in and Wake's lead started to melt. A 7-0 Carolina run cut the deficit to 11. A three-pointer by Ademola Okulaja and a jumper by Antawn Jamison cut it to eight.
The Heels surged ahead, 56-54, on another three by Okulaja with 2:24 left. They took the lead for good at 58-57 on a delicious drive down the lane by McInnis, who floated the ball over the outstretched arm of the 6-foot-10 Duncan with 1:09 left.
Carolina hit five of six free throws in the final 38 seconds, leaving the Deacons spent, searching for answers.
"I believe physical fatigue was a factor down the stretch," said Wake coach Dave Odom. "We tried everything we had, but nothing worked."
UNC won with its blend of veteran leadership and unbridled youth. McInnis, a junior point guard, led the scoring with 20 points, and Carolina's three freshmen played critical second-half roles.
Jamison played the final 14 minutes with four fouls, and collected 11 of his 13 points and 10 of his 15 rebounds in the second half. Carter scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime, fTC shooting 5-for-5. And Okulaja did a creditable job defensing Duncan.
"I tried to push him out of the zone so he couldn't get easy layups," Okulaja said. "I wanted to make him play with his face to the basket."
The strategy worked. Duncan scored 22, but did not get a shot off in the final five minutes.