The Tar Heels’ starters have enjoyed victories over elite teams the past three seasons, but one they hadn’t overcome was UT. The Longhorns routed Carolina in Dallas two years ago and, in a pivot point for last season, topped UNC in Greensboro thanks to a second half comeback—one in which Roy Williams controversially pulled Kendall Marshall for erstwhile starter Larry Drew—that became a talking point for the remainder of the year.
And Carolina played like a squad intent on revenge. The Heels actually shot relatively poorly (44 percent) but stifled Texas defensively and attacked much more aggressively off the dribble. After a couple of subpar performances, Harrison Barnes reemerged as the go-to scorer. Just as importantly, he finally began to rebound the way a 6-8, 220-pound athlete should consistently. He finished with 26 points on a highly efficient 6-for-15 shooting and added 10 rebounds and two steals.
Williams frequently gets defensive when queried why Barnes isn’t playing up to preseason billing. He noted in the post-game press conference that he’d told the team before the game that he believed Barnes was due to break out, the second time this year he reported that he’d predicted a big game for his sophomore star (Wisconsin was the other, and also prescient).
Carolina has struggled at times this season rebounding, and the first half featured several failures to clean up the defensive backboard. The Heels brought significantly more energy to the glass in the second frame, however, finishing with a impressive 49-34 edge for the game. In addition to Barnes, Tyler Zeller (11 boards) and John Henson (eight) established dominance against a smaller and slower frontline.
Defensively, the Heels limited UT to 35 percent shooting and forced several live ball turnovers that they converted into easy buckets. Williams is beginning to utilize more traps, taking advantage of the length and speed of UNC’s perimeter players. Reggie Bullock’s increased minutes have made that option more appealing due to his excellent lateral quickness.
The bottom line is that Carolina’s fire burned to the level of championship contender. Weak, non-conference December games tend to put everyone to sleep, and Williams candidly remarked afterward that he can’t expect the players to evaluate a Nicholls State as a threat, and thus their concentration will not reach maximum level. Texas stood as the final genuine challenge until ACC play tips off next month.
UNC takes off eight days and returns on Dec. 29 to face Elon. Click here to view the Carolina/Texas box score.