"It's nice to be able to play people and not worry about stamina and fouls so much," UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Still, a phenomenal late-game rally nearly catapulted the Tar Heels (19-11) into the Sweet 16. But when Rashad McCants' last-second attempt to nail a game tying three – that would later be ruled as a two-point attempt – fell short, Roy Williams' quest for his first national championship ended.
"I thought my foot was on the line, but at the same time I was trying to get away from the defender," said McCants, who scored a game-high 27 points.
Yet were it not for the heart the Tar Heels displayed, McCants would have never gotten the opportunity.
Trailing 73-66 with 1:50 left to play, Sean May found a wide-open McCants, who appeared surprised by the pass and was unable to convert his sixth three-pointer of the game. However Raymond Felton managed to find the mark on the Tar Heels' next possession, and with 1:14 left, they trailed by five and hope remained.
After Brandon Mouton made only one of two free throws, the slumping Melvin Scott hit a huge three to make it 75-72 with 25.9 seconds left.
But there would be no miracles, as Mouton converted on two free throws. Felton hit another three to cut the score to two with 11.1 seconds left, however the Tar Heels could not stop the ensuing inbounds pass. May had to spend his fifth foul, which enabled Raleigh Enloe product P.J. Tucker to hit one of two free throws for the game's final margin.
"We dug ourselves a little too big of a hole against a very good team," Williams said fighting back tears after the game. "We were a couple of little mistakes from having a lot of fun. I congratulate Texas because they made plays. They made free throws and they made shots when they had to make them.
"The scoreboard says 78-75 and that's the bottom line."
McCants, the ACC's leading scorer, went for 27 points and Jawad Williams added 17 to lead four Tar Heels in double-figures. May and Felton each added 11 points.
Now Carolina fans will have to wait and see if UNC's talented trio of underclassmen will all return, for what could be an incredible team next season.
"I expect to have all of them back," Williams said. "I'm hopeful they'll hurt long enough this spring, summer and fall to make the commitment to making their individual games better and be willing to make the team better."
As McCants, Felton and Jawad Williams left the podium, while Roy Williams remained for more questioning, each player tapped their coach on the back in a show of support.
"We came a long way as a team," Felton said. "Tonight was a hard loss. We are all upset, but we have to try and build on the things we were doing."
"I thought it was a very interesting season," McCants added. "I never expected it to end like this. I think coming back next year, we are going to be a lot more determined and focused on the little things."
The first half was indicative of the match-up it was hailed to be, with both teams stretching their legs after being subjected to their previous opponents' ball control tactics. Texas took a 44-39 lead at the half behind 60-percent shooting, including 40-percent from beyond the arc. After trailing by as many as ?, the Tar Heels, which out-rebounded the so-called bigger Longhorns, went on an 8-2 run to cut the deficit to 44-39 before intermission.
Then, despite getting possession and executing two defensive stops to start the second half, Carolina could not convert and quickly went back down by nine. After back-to-back baskets by Williams and McCants, UNC was only on the slight downside of a 48-44 score.
But then the Tar Heels went cold. With near to nothing available inside after May picked up his third personal foul, Texas scored nine unanswered points and opened up a seemingly insurmountable 13-point cushion.
"It helped us a lot [when May got his third]," UT forward Jason Klotz said. "We were up and just had to take care of the ball. We put some bodies out there, and it's important in a crucial game like this when you have to crash the boards."
Finally, McCants nailed his fifth and final three to cut the lead to 57-47 with 12:36 left.
After Williams called timeout, a baseline triple-team forced Klotz to double dribble, which was followed by two Jawad Williams' free throws that made it 57-49. Then came a steal and layup and a post-up bucket by McCants, followed by a May put back of a Felton miss, and all of a sudden Carolina was back within two.
"We found a way to finish the game off," UT coach Rick Barnes said. "It wasn't pretty; we had a hard time handling the ball tonight, but you have to give North Carolina credit. They played great defense.
"We talked about how they will always keep playing," he said. "They are big, long, athletic, and they come with big traps. We had to keep looking to score."
After keeping his decorum in check throughout the weekend, Barnes triumphantly shouted as he was leaving the arena, "You've got to believe!"
Texas (25-7) will face the winner of Sunday's game between Xavier and Mississippi State next Friday in Atlanta.