But the Wolfpack, as it has done repeatedly during its losses this season, faded in the final minutes. The Heels went on a 10-2 run after the Pack tied it up and the home team was never able to pull closer than four points the rest of the way as the Tar Heels won its 10th straight over the Pack with a 75-63 victory on Wednesday night at the RBC Center.
Emotions boiled over for head coach Sidney Lowe in the final minutes when he picked up his first technical foul of the season. Lowe was upset at the lack of fouls being called in the paint when his post players attacked the basket.
"I thought it was a little physical," Lowe said. "I wanted a foul but it wasn't a foul."
The loss drops the Pack to 14-13 overall and 4-9 in league play, as the team has dropped two straight and will finish under .500 in the ACC for the fifth time in five years under Lowe.
"It's a tough loss for us," Lowe said. "I thought our kids gave great effort. They certainly played hard enough, just made bad decisions in the last six minutes."
Richard Howell did not play on Wednesday after suffering a head injury against Maryland on Sunday when teammate DeShawn Painter elbowed him in the head going for a rebound. In his absence Jordan Vandenberg played his best game of the season, frustrating the Tar Heel big men and picking up three blocks in 15 minutes of action.
"I thought Jordan was great defensively," Lowe said. "He executed offensively, finished with a couple of dunks. He was definitely a factor down there. He battled."
The two teams shot nearly identical percentages, with the Heels hitting 42 percent and the Pack hitting 43 percent from the floor. The Heels had a slight advantage from behind the arc, hitting 5-of-16 compared to just 3-of-14 for the Pack – who also hit just 4-of-10 from the charity stripe. The Heels finished the game with 19 offensive rebounds on 38 misses while the Pack had 12 offensive rebounds on 37 misses.
CJ Leslie led the team in both scoring and rebounding with 13 and eight respectively. Two other players finished in double digits as Tracy Smith scored 12 points to go with seven boards, and Lorenzo Brown finished with an impressive 11-point, eight-assist, five-rebound performance.
"It was just bad decision making at the end," Brown said.
The Pack came out of the opening tip the more aggressive and more active team, doubling the post on defense to force the Heels to take jumpers. The Heels weren't able to hit many early, as the Pack also limited them to one shot on offense in the process of jumping out to a 19-9 advantage.
But North Carolina came roaring back into the game as Dexter Strickland took control for the Heels offensively, scoring a game-high nine points in the half. The Pack out-shot the Heels in the half, hitting 40 percent of its shot compared to 36 percent, but it made only 2-of-10 from beyond the arc. The Heels closed on a 22-10 run to take a 31-29 lead into the half.
"You can't take quick, bad shots against a team like that," Lowe said. "They make you pay."
Coming out of the locker room, the Pack managed to stay within shouting distance of the Heels but trailed for the first 10 minutes of action. The Pack tied the score back up at 50 points thanks to a few key defensive stops that led to easy baskets. But the Heels responded with a 10-2 run, as Harrison Barnes rebounded from an 0-for-6 first half to score 14 points in the second half and lead the Heels to a win.
"We didn't fight through it and get there with him," Lowe said. "He made a shot and got going."
The Pack will try to break out of its two-game skid on Saturday afternoon when it hosts Georgia Tech at the RBC Center.