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North Carolina (2-2) started strong with a Harrison Barnes pull-up jumper and a Larry Drew driving layup to grab an early 4-0 lead, but Vanderbilt (3-1) responded by scoring 22 of the next 31 points to take a 22-13 advantage. The Commodores torched the nets from long range, connecting on six of their nine 3-pointers, in addition to hitting 14-of-20 field goals during one stretch in the first half.
That nine-point lead increased to 14 before UNC scored the last four points to enter halftime trailing 39-29. The Tar Heels extended that run out to 23-8 in the opening nine minutes of the second half in reclaiming the lead at 48-47, but the Commodores answered with a 10-1 run to notch a 59-51 lead with 5:05 remaining.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Barnes (11) and Reggie Bullock (10) both scored in double digits. John Jenkins paced the Commodores with 16 points on 2-of-10 shooting (10-of-12 from free throw line).
UNC connected on 40.7 percent of its field goal attempts (22-of-54, 3-of-11 3-pointers) while holding the Commodores to 46.8 percent (22-of-47, 7-of-18 3-pointers). The Tar Heels outrebounded Vanderbilt, 35-34.
INSIDE THE GAME
Failure to Close
Vanderbilt's largest run of the game – a 9-0 spurt midway through the first half – broke open a tied affair and gave the Commodores a 22-13 margin. North Carolina promptly responded with five quick points of its own to cut the deficit to four, but Jenkins drilled a 3-pointer on the next possession to stymie the run.
Several minutes later, Barnes spurred a 6-0 UNC mini-run after Vanderbilt had built a 30-18 lead, but once again, Vandy squelched the momentum with a Lance Goulbourne 3-pointer. North Carolina scored the first six points after halftime to reduce its margin to four points before Brad Tinsley canned a 3-pointer from the right wing, and then Festus Ezeli delivered a 3-point play the old-fashioned way when UNC narrowed the gap to 42-41.
No matter how many daggers Vanderbilt kept jabbing into North Carolina, the boys in blue kept fighting back, eventually taking the lead at 48-47 with 11:21 minutes remaining. But as soon as the Tar Heels found themselves on the right side of the scoreboard, they seemed to let off the gas ever so slightly, and the Commodores regained control with a 10-1 run and would not relinquish the lead again.
"First of all, we didn't play the first half so we got behind," Zeller said. "And then in the second half, we come out and put all of our energy into it and we had to continue to keep pushing, but we did have a moment where we dropped off and I think that's where we lost the game because at the end, it was too far to be able to come back."
Part of that emotional letdown revealed itself both on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt missed 17 of its 25 shots after halftime, but grabbed nine offensive rebounds, which helps explain the Commodores 21 attempted free throws (16 made).
"We couldn't get any defensive rebounds in the second half," Williams said. "Every time we'd get them to miss a shot, they'd get another shot and put that one back in."
Williams also pointed to Vandy's ability to work late into the shot clock and force the Tar Heels to play defense for extended amounts of time.
Changing Up the Lineups
As North Carolina emerged from the final media timeout with 3:41 remaining, the three freshmen took the floor alongside Zeller and Leslie McDonald. That combination left UNC with only two starters and a small lineup on the floor.
"We had trouble beating their 4-man and their 4-man was beating our 4-man off the dribble, so we went small and tried to get Harrison as a 4-man at that time," said Williams, then adding, "That was one of the times that they got an offensive rebound and scored on a second shot."
Williams admitted there was "no question" that he was still looking for the right combinations.
"What I'm looking for is five guys who will play together as one," Williams said. "We've got great kids. You know what they're saying? They're saying, ‘I've got to do this' or ‘I've got to score.' And it's not that. It's, ‘We've got to do it.' And everybody is trying to go on their own at crunch time… We are searching a little bit."
Henson Sent to the Bench
Williams spent a good portion of his media availability at the ACC Operation Basketball talking about being tougher on his players this season. John Henson may have been the first example of that old-school approach on Sunday.
The sophomore forward grabbed eight rebounds, but missed four of his six free throws and committed six turnovers. As a result, Henson played 10 minutes in the first half and only six minutes after intermission.
"You can't have zero assists and six turnovers and you can't go 2-for-6 from the foul line," Williams said. "The way I'm going to coach – and you guys have seen me – I love getting five guys and playing them all year. But you've got to deserve to play. You can't just go out there… I took Dexter [Strickland] out for a long stretch there. You can't have zero assists and six turnovers and you can't have one assist and four turnovers. You cannot hurt your team. You've got to play better."
Perspective on Barnes
Harrison Barnes provided more offense on Sunday than he did against Minnesota, but his field goal statistics are still humbling – 4-of-25 shooting over his last five halves of action. Not the numbers anyone would expect from a preseason All-America, but then again, the Ames, Iowa native just finished his fourth collegiate game.
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings shared his feelings on the highly-touted freshman during his postgame press conference.
"People need to get off this first-team All-American thing," he said. "Who picked that? Give the kid a chance. He's going to be a really, really good player. He's a frickin' college freshman. Now, he's a very talented college freshman. But he needs to be allowed to grow like every other college freshman. That's unfair to him. He's already got a target on his back and it's not of his own doing.
"He's going to be a terrific player. He doesn't force the game. He's got a maturity beyond his age, but what you guys have done to him is not even right. And I don't mean that maliciously towards the media, but you can't pick a kid that's never played a college game as a first-team All-American… Can you?"