During that decisive stretch, the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (19-10) forced five turnovers and held Air Force to 1-of-6 shooting, and thus inverted the flow of the game to one more palatable for a team looking to win its first NCAA contest since beating Princeton on March 16, 2001.
"We wanted it more," Rashad McCants said. "We were hungry. Our whole concept coming into the game is that we can't let any other team in the country be hungrier than we are."
It was a strange night indeed, but one in which at least a semblance of the team balance UNC used to start the season 6-0 seemed to return. Four Tar Heels scored in double figures, led by Sean May's 14 points. But their leading scorer McCants, who tallied just nine points on 4-of-13 shooting, led the defensive effort that made the difference and ultimately secured a second round meeting with No. 3-seed Texas on Saturday.
"It was fun – the NCAA atmosphere – none of us had ever been a part of it," May said. "We'll always remember it, but I'm glad that one is over and we got it."
Raymond Felton missed his first two three-point attempts, but converted on his final two and was 6-of-7 from the free throw line for 12 points. Jawad Williams, who appeared to benefit from the Falcons' lack of physically aggressive play, scored 10 points and pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
Jackie Manuel, who got the start over Melvin Scott, also chipped in 10 points and added seven boards.
However, Scott didn't seem to mind coming off the bench in what may have been the Tar Heels' best demonstration of team chemistry this season. In fact it was Scott that suggested he and his teammates all shave their heads prior to the game in a display of team unity.
"It was very frustrating in the beginning, but I think we strapped up in the second half and made it uncomfortable for those guys," said Scott, who made his first three-point attempt as soon as he got in the game.
Air Force (22-7) was led by center Nick Welch, who scored a game-high 17 points and Antoine Hood added 15.
For UNC coach Roy Williams, the nation's winningest active coach percentage-wise, it was his first NCAA Tournament victory against the school that gave Dean Smith his first coaching gig. Smith, the all-time winningest coach, was an assistant basketball coach and head baseball and golf coach at Air Force from 1955-57.
It was the first meeting ever between the two teams, which implement exactly opposite game plans, with both coaches doing their best to employ strategies of their respective mentors.
Carolina, a team that has always preferred an up-tempo technique, was stifled in the first half, shooting just 32.3 percent, including 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. The Tar Heels appeared to be falling right into the hands of the Falcons' deliberate style of play. In the meantime, Air Force, coached by Joe Scott, a former assistant to legendary Princeton coach Pete Carrill, shot 50 percent to take a 28-23 halftime lead, despite being out-rebounded 20-10.
"Those guys played tough," Manuel said. "They were disciplined, they were patient, they ran what their coach told them to run, and that made it tough."
Then after the Falcons withstood an 8-2 UNC scoring onslaught to start the second half, with a 6-0 run of their own, it looked like Carolina's much anticipated return to the Big Dance would be a short one.
Instead, the Tar Heels survived to play again. And, Williams left open the possibility that if his team can win five more games in succession, his salt and pepper gray hair may come off just has his players have jettisoned their lids.
"If we win the national championship, there is no telling what I might do," Williams said.
Smith always said that a team builds momentum in the tournament, not before it gets there. He also said that it's good to get a scare early in the tournament and survive. Carolina succeeded on both counts, something that was certain to make the 73-year-old patriarch of the program happy from his Chapel Hill home.