Losing builds character. Winning close games also builds character.
After a long exam break, Carolina traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, to face a ranked Volunteers squad playing in front of its first sellout crowd in years. The Tar Heels faced a deficit nearly the entire game and, if you didn't hear, Tennessee's coach is Rick Barnes, who entered the game as one of few coaches to have a winning record against Roy Williams.
The Tar Heels passed its last final exam of the semester Sunday afternoon, winning 78-73, though they only led for about 90 seconds during the course of the game.
In the second half, UNC hopped on run after run, but Tennessee answered each time. As the clock dwindled down, UNC's leaders stepped up.
A calm, cool and collected Kenny Williams hit a contested three in the final minute. Then Theo Pinson hit a pair of free throws. And another pair. Then Joel Berry stepped up, knocking in two from the charity stripe of his own.
"The first thing Coach said when we got into the locker room was that the young guys grew up a little today," Kenny Williams told reporters after the game. "I think we all did."
The Tar Heels found themselves down by six at the break after a poor performance on the glass in addition to falling victim to Tennessee's propensity for creating turnovers.
"I think the fact that we pulled it out - it tells a lot about this team," Williams said.
A collective group effort led to the win, and the stats show no different.
Luke Maye finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. Theo Pinson added seven points, eight assist and nine rebounds - nearly a triple double. Garrison Brooks grabbed eight rebounds (five offensive) and nine points. Williams and Berry scored 15 and 21, respectively. Off the bench, Sterling Manley came into the game and grabbed eight rebounds (four offensive), not to mention ten points.
No Tar Heel finished with a double double, but, tonight, the team didn't need anyone to achieve the marker for the victory.
Moving into conference play, UNC has already faced multiple tests, including a couple in hostile, true road environments. This team can compete in close games, and expect them to do so as the season progresses.
Photos by Smith Hardy