CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 7 North Carolina overcame a 15-point first-half deficit to hold off an upset-minded Tennessee squad, 73-71, at the Smith Center on Sunday.
UNC outscored the Volunteers 14-7 over the final seven minutes of play and needed various contributions, including an offensive burst from Seventh Woods, defensive plays from Nate Britt and a driving layup from Justin Jackson that gave the Tar Heels the lead for good at 70-69 with 2:14 to play. Tony Bradley blocked Lamonte Turner’s driving layup with two seconds to play to secure the victory.
"We are lucky, period," UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference. "They played better than we did, but we did make a couple of big plays down the stretch."
It was another lackluster outing for the Tar Heels, playing for the second game in a row without starting point guard Joel Berry. UNC shot 39.7 percent from the floor while allowing Tennessee to shoot 51.9 percent. The Tar Heels won the game on the offensive glass, outscoring their opponents 25-9 in second-chance points.
The 15-point deficit was the largest UNC has overcome in a victory since winning at Florida State, 81-75, after trailing 21-6. The eight-point halftime deficit is the largest UNC has overcome in a victory since rallying from a 10-point halftime deficit against Clemson in the ACC Tournament on March 12, 2011.
Go-To Scorer Needed
Justin Jackson took over the scoring load with Joel Berry out of the lineup against Davidson last Wednesday, leading the Tar Heels with 27 points on a career-high seven 3-pointers. The shots weren’t falling for the junior wing on Sunday – he scored seven points on 3-of-15 shooting – and none of his teammates were ready to assume the primary scoring role.
Kenny Williams (12 points) was the lone starter in double figures until late in the game, while Jackson, Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks combined to shoot 9-of-36.
Ebb and Flow
The maturation of Seventh Woods has been a slow and arduous process, although the freshman point guard has begun to show the flashes that made him a YouTube sensation years ago.
With UNC trailing 64-59 with seven minutes to play, Woods grabbed a rebound and finished in transition to spark the Smith Center crowd. On Tennessee’s next possession, he forced a turnover and scored on a reverse to cut the deficit to one point before dribbling the ball out of bounds on his next trip down.
He still has plenty of work to do to climb into his head coach’s good graces, though, considering his 0-3 assist-turnover ratio and the fact that he trailed Stilman White for the second game in a row in minutes played.
"Coach is going to stay on top of him because he knows how good he is and he knows his abilities," Britt said. "That's the way it was for me my freshman year and the same thing with Joel. That's just how Coach is. He wants him to learn, and he wants him to learn fast.
"The point guard position is the hardest spot to learn here at Carolina. Knowing how Coach wants you to push the ball, change sides of the court and get everyone on the team involved, as well as on the defensive end be able to pressure and stay in front. Playing at this level is a lot different from high school, so I think Seventh is still adjusting and trying to learn everything that Coach wants him to do."
Digging a Hole
The Tar Heels scored on three of their first six possessions to build a 7-2 lead, and then Tennessee took control with a 26-6 run over the next 9:07.
During that span, UNC missed 14 of its 17 field goal attempts, including all four 3-pointers, and endured a 4:06 stretch without scoring a point. The Tar Heels averaged 0.4 points per possession while the Volunteers were scorching the nets with a 1.86-points-per-possession average despite committing two turnovers.
Sunday marked the third time in four games that UNC has stumbled off the tip. The Tar Heels trailed 26-9 at Indiana, 10-3 against Davidson and 28-13 against Tennessee.
"I feel like we have to prepare better," freshman wing Brandon Robinson said. "Coach is on us about preparing better and just coming out with more energy. We can't look at Joel being down as an excuse. We just have to come out and play with more energy, play with a sense of urgency and defend the ball."
Stat of Note
Tennessee shot 65.4 percent (17-of-26) in the first half, which ties the fourth-highest field goal percentage in a half by an an opponent in school history. Duke owns the record with its 69.2 percent mark in the first half on March 9, 2013.
After a week off for exams, UNC returns to the road to play No. 6 Kentucky in the third installment of the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday (5:45pm EST). The 9-1 Wildcats won their first seven games before a home loss to UCLA, 97-92, on Dec. 3.