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Texas's physical play knocked back the Tar Heels (7-4) early as the Longhorns (9-2) built a 26-16 advantage midway through the first half, but UNC raced to the locker room on a 15-4 spurt to claim a 33-32 lead.
North Carolina extended that run to 31-14 in assuming a 47-40 lead with 14:49 to play, but Jordan Hamilton and Joseph kept Texas close with a handful of clutch baskets down the stretch. The Longhorns overcame a 67-60 deficit with 5:43 to play and grabbed a 70-69 lead roughly three minutes later.
These two programs exchanged blows in the final minutes, ending with a Harrison Barnes 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the score at 76 with 12.7 seconds to play that set up Joseph's heroics.
Strickland tied his career high with 18 points to lead North Carolina, while Barnes added 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Tyler Zeller added 14 points and seven rebounds, and John Henson posted 10 points and eight rebounds. Hamilton paced the Longhorns with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Joseph added a career high 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
North Carolina shot 43.9 percent (29-of-66) from the floor, including a 27.3 percent mark from 3-point territory (3-of-11). Texas connected on 44.1 percent (30-of-68) of its field goal attempts, thanks to a 52.9 percent shooting display (18-of-34) after halftime.
The Longhorns outrebounded UNC, 40-37, including a 16-13 advantage on the offensive glass.
INSIDE THE GAME
Failure to Close
North Carolina closed its past two victories over Kentucky and Long Beach State with a healthy dose of composure, capitalizing on scoring opportunities, knocking down free throws and preventing costly turnovers while playing solid defense.
Those factors define UNC's 31-14 run against Texas on Saturday to build a 47-40 lead early in the second half. After the Longhorns dominated the boards in the first half – 24 total, 11 offensive – they managed just five defensive rebounds through the first 12 minutes of the second half.
North Carolina had also held Texas to 34.9 percent shooting (15-of-43) through the first 25 minutes of play, but things fell apart as the game clock wore down.
Even though UNC knocked down 50 percent of its field goals in the second half, the boys in blue were unable to put away the Longhorns. Texas connected on 15 of its final 25 shots (60 percent), pulled down five offensive rebounds in the final eight minutes and took advantage of three Tar Heel turnovers in the final six minutes in rallying to victory.
With North Carolina holding a 73-72 lead with 1:00 to play, Larry Drew missed an open 3-pointer from the top of the key. Joseph drove to the basket on the next possession and found Tristan Thompson for a wide-open dunk and the lead, and then Zeller's shot from point-blank range bounced out into Hamilton's hands the next trip down.
"We had some opportunities that we didn't make the play we needed to," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Zeller put it a little more bluntly in the locker room, saying, "They were able to pull out the plays at the end and we weren't."
Two Better Than One
After struggling through November, Larry Drew has rebounded and played up to the same level that he displayed in directing UNC to the NIT championship game last April. Entering Saturday's game, the junior point had dished out 23 assists against seven turnovers in his last four outings.
But Drew (two points, three assists, four turnovers) committed several careless turnovers against Texas and picked up his second foul just eight minutes into the game, forcing freshman Kendall Marshall to take the reins under the national spotlight. The Dumfries, Va. native ignited UNC's offensive burst in the first half, scoring seven points and loosening the Longhorns' tough defense.
Those efforts carried over into the second half as Drew remained in foul trouble, resulting in Marshall playing 15 total minutes while totaling seven points, three rebounds and three assists against one turnover.
"I love Kendall, so just seeing him out there doing his thing – he does that stuff all of the time in practice – that's just him becoming more comfortable out there, being able to make passes, being able to defend better and attacking," Barnes said. "That's the most aggressive I've seen him maybe ever since I've known him."
Williams pointed to a few defensive lapses on Marshall's part, however, which likely explains his decision to stick with Drew down the stretch. Drew shut down Texas's pick and roll on his final three possessions, and Williams indicated that his starting point guard would have guarded Joseph on the game-winning shot had he not fouled out 20 seconds earlier.
While Tar Heel fans will undoubtedly clamor for Marshall to receive more playing time, the most important aspect of Saturday's game is that North Carolina has two legitimate options at point guard for the first time in a number of years.
Texas arrived in Greensboro boasting a 35.6 field goal percentage defense mark, but the secret to the Longhorns' success lay in their ability to hold opponents to 28.8 percent shooting from 3-point territory. That statistic provides a view into head coach Rick Barnes' strategy – in-your-face, pressuring defense.
Texas's full court press and tight man-to-man flustered North Carolina early, but as the first half progressed, the Tar Heels stopped looking for perimeter shots and made a concerted effort to drive the ball to the basket. Strickland, Drew and Marshall all found avenues to the hoop against their body-checking defenders.
After Barnes rattled in a jumper with 7:13 remaining, UNC scored its remaining points of the first half in the paint or on the free throw line.
"We just went with what was working," Strickland said. "Everybody's been driving to the basket, and if it's not there, then ‘Z' would be wide open or John would be wide open, so it was working. You just try to go with what was working at the time."