And they were relieved they saved some face on a weekend their school is celebrating the fabled program's 100-year history of amazing achievement.
If you can imagine a basketball program collectively sitting back, getting its bearings and letting sink in what had just transpired, and letting out a huge sigh of satisfaction, that would be the Heels' dispositions after improving to 14-11 overall and 3-7 in the ACC. Even if just for a few minutes.
"There's no question," Roy Williams said, following a chuckle, when asked if there was a measure of relief after not blowing the game down the stretch.
"You play every day to try to get better, and I think we have gotten better, but it hadn't shown up in the final scores."
That is an understatement. But the Tar Heels did some nice things, especially in the element of intelligence. This hasn't exactly been an IQ team for the ages, although the players to a man are smart kids. It is just that connecting what the staff is telling them and then executing it has been a genuine problem.
That is why Larry Drew's play in the second half, and primarily down the stretch, must have been so appeasing to the inner sanctum of the team and to its legion of fans.
Drew finished with a team-high 15 points while also handing out seven assists to go with just two turnovers. UNC turned the ball over only 10 times, which constitutes a nearly flawless outing for this group.
The sophomore point guard also said the need for a victory and earning one in front of many of the men that have helped construct UNC's widely recognizable brand was important.
"You definitely want to come out and perform well and give the alumni a good show," he said. "And also at the same time, with the predicament that we've been in losing, coming out here and getting this win is relieving."
You really can't underscore the liberation factor here. These kids have been feeling so much pressure and stress. Their coach has been feeling it, and it's a pretty good guess their families have been so as well.
Add the monster that is this program's past, which can be an albatross any time a Carolina team under-performs, sitting in the stands representing a century of greatness, and one can only imagine how the players would have been affected losing to a last-place Wolfpack team in their own building.
So instead of playing tight, not wanting to let down the Rosenbluths, Cunninghams, Kupchaks and Fords of the blue-blood universe, the Heels were relaxed and played with pride.
"I guess bringing back the Carolina spirit," Drew said, noting he was infused by having past players on hand. "I guess you can say [that] may have been lacking the last couple of weeks because of the way things have been going."
Deon Thompson noted that while the team is relieved, it hasn't done anything yet. It has three ACC wins, and two are over the league's worst team.
Issues remain, especially regarding a bruised and battered front line that got nice juice injections from John Henson and David Wear. And it's not like Carolina is going to masquerade as an NCAA-caliber team with the snap of a finger, or win over the Wolfpack.
But this was a day the players could feel normal again, as in normal for a UNC basketball baller. They celebrated Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington before the game, took care of an arch rival during the game, and feasted with and honored the legends afterward.
"I think being a part of last night and being able to see what we're a part of, I think everybody was so humbled by that experience and also thankful that coach Williams brought us all along to be here, to be part of a tradition and a family," Deon Thompson said. "It's been a good past few days so far."