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The Tar Heels (11-4, 1-0 ACC) jumped out to an early 22-13 advantage, but Virginia's methodical approach took over and allowed the Cavaliers (10-6, 1-1 ACC) to build a 43-32 lead with 14:25 remaining in regulation. North Carolina countered with a 20-7 spurt to retake the lead at 52-50 with 3:15 left and then increased that margin to 57-52 with 1:13 on the clock.
A pair of Jontel Evans lay-ups cut Virginia's deficit to 57-56 with 37 seconds left to play, but the Tar Heels connected on five of their final six free throws to secure the victory.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 12 points and also grabbed five rebounds, while Harrison Barnes added nine points, three rebounds and a critical block in the final 90 seconds of play. John Henson scored eight points on 4-of-7 shooting and pulled down five rebounds. K.T. Harrell led four Cavaliers in double-digit scoring with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting and grabbed five rebounds.
The Cavaliers entered Saturday's game with the ACC's worst field goal percentage defense (44.4), but they were able to hold the Tar Heels to 37.0 percent on 20-of-54 shooting. Virginia faired a little better in shooting 41.2 percent from the floor (21-of-51).
After missing six of their first 11 free throws to start the game, the Tar Heels knocked down 14 of their final 16 to finish at 70.4 percent (19-of-27). UNC outrebounded Virginia, 39-32.
INSIDE THE GAME
And For My Next Magic Trick…
The Tar Heels missed 26 of their final 34 field goal attempts, including a 26.9 percent showing (7-of-26) in the second half, and somehow still emerged from Charlottesville with a win.
"I feel like I've been inside the cookie jar and the cookie store and stole every cookie out of the jar and every cookie out of the store," head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "I want to get out of town as fast as I can… It was one of the ugliest ‘W's' that I've ever been involved with."
In order to explain this Tar Heel victory, you have to look beneath the box score. Sure, UNC outrebounding Virginia, 24-16, in the second half played a role, as well as the Cavaliers shooting an even worse 26.1 percent from the floor, but wins like this don't occur without intestinal fortitude, otherwise known as toughness.
"We fought and we had some toughness – more toughness today than I've seen in a long time," Williams said. "And I told them, it's not a cut against last year's team, but last year's team didn't show that toughness when it got down."
North Carolina clawed back into its ACC opener behind a strong defensive effort, outscoring the Cavaliers 20-7 over an 11-minute, 10-second period in a game that UNC really had no right in winning. But the mark of a good team is in being able to claim victory when you leave your A-game at home in the closet.
"Coach said he didn't know if the team last year would have been able to fight back," Henson said. "That's a credit to the players and the mentality that we have this year. I think we're going to be fine."
A Pair of Contrasting Runs
North Carolina utilized a combination of offensive efficiency and balanced scoring in securing control in the opening 9:04 on Saturday. Eight different Tar Heels scored as UNC built a 22-13 lead on 60 percent shooting (9-of-15, 2-of-3 3-pointers). North Carolina converted three steals into four transition points while not committing any turnovers during that stretch, but that disciplined play fell apart over the next 16 minutes.
Virginia closed the half on a 16-2 spurt behind a 5-of-9 shooting display, and then increased its lead to 37-30 at the break with a Akil Mitchell 3-pointer. Zeller scored a basket with 15:01 remaining, ending an 8-minute, 53-second scoring drought for UNC in which the boys in blue missed 14 straight field goal attempts.
North Carolina's solid early play had delivered a nine-point lead, but the full-throttle lapse erased that margin and presented the Tar Heels with an 11-point hole with 14:25 left in regulation.
"I don't really know of one certain thing," Zeller said when asked what caused the shift in execution. "I think some of it was that we relaxed a little bit. That's something we can't do. We've just got to keep going."
Henson agreed that the team took its foot off the gas after building the nine-point lead.
"It made me so upset because we were about to put them away, then we turned the ball over a couple of times and took a couple of bad shots, and that really hurt us," Henson said.
More Than a Game
UNC announced on Friday that Reggie Bullock's availability for Saturday's contest was up in the air after news that the freshman guard's grandmother, Patricia Williams, had passed away earlier that morning. Bullock skipped practice to return home to Kinston, N.C., but decided to join his teammates in Charlottesville on Friday night.
"He's a special youngster," Williams said. "Everybody loves Reggie. Everybody loves Reggie for a reason, that's the kind of kid he is. His grandmother, Ms. Williams, she's the one that basically raised him. That's who he's lived with ever since I've known him.
"That was a tough thing for him yesterday because, in fact, I just asked him last week and he thought she was getting a little bit better. It's a difficult thing. She had cataract surgery so she could watch him play because she got so she couldn't see. And then to have that happen, that's a tough situation for a young man."
Bullock entered the game with 13:48 remaining in the first half and drilled a 3-pointer roughly three minutes later to give UNC its largest lead at 22-13. He finished with four points (1-of-3, 1-of-2 on 3-pointers) and five rebounds in 14 minutes.