Led by a late increase in defensive pressure, Raymond Felton and Jawad Williams' leadership, and some bonehead plays by visiting Georgia Tech, UNC defeated the Yellow Jackets, 67-66, before an announced sellout crowd of 20,859 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
"I'm proud of our guys for hanging in there," UNC coach Matt Doherty said, obviously relieved and in good spirits. "We got down 10 points and we just kept battling and battling.
"We talk about breaks and how eventually breaks should go our way and at the end they did," Carolina's third-year coach continued. "I thought it was ironic that we won the game on a couple of foul shots after not shooting them well the last game."
The Tar Heels (15-13, 5-9) trailed by as many as 10 points on a few occasions, the last time at 56-46 with 8:13 left in the game. But Felton and Williams simply wouldn't let the Heels fade. They didn't want to be Tech's first road victim of the season, which would have intensified the rampant chatter about the Heels, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament play-in game, and Doherty's future. UNC had been here before too many times, but this time Carolina came through.
"In a way," Williams said when asked if he thought it was the same old thing when trailing by 10 late. "I feel we have the personnel on this team to pull out the win. I knew we needed to play through it, and we did."
It was a team win, but Felton and Williams were the keys. The pair combined to score 17 of UNC's final 21 points, the last two a pair of free throws from Felton, who made four of his last five attempts at the charity stripe.
"I always want to be the one to take the big shots with the game on the line, but I'm just a team player," said Felton who led the Tar Heels with 19 points. "I'm a leader like that – I want the tough shots, but you know, we have many guys on the team that can take the tough shots. So, whether it's me or any other guys on the team, but yeah, I do."
Carolina cut Tech's lead to 62-61 on a jumper by Williams with 2:01 left. But Jackets' freshman star Chris Bosh rammed home an entry pass to put the visitors up by three.
UNC was unable to cut into that deficit on its next couple of possessions – with Rashad McCants mysteriously on the bench – as the Heels missed a few 3-pointers. Yet after the Jackets (12-13, 5-9) used their final timeout with 43.2 seconds left, they were whistled for a 5-second violation unable to inbound the ball. Tech may have gotten a break on the call because B.J. Elder, who was the inbound passer, signaled for a timeout even though Paul Hewitt's team didn't have any remaining. Yet the officials didn't honor that request, and instead of shooting free throws, UNC had the ball near mid-court.
"He (official) said that the referee called a 5-second count before he (Elder) called timeout," Doherty explained.
But once again the Heels couldn't score as Melvin Scott missed a 3-point attempt. And when Tech's Marvin Lewis nailed a pair of free throws, it didn't look good for the Heels.
"It wasn't (where we'd like to be), but we knew that if we continued to battle, we could make something positive happen," said Williams, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. "And we did."
And this was Carolina's day. There haven't been many the last two seasons, and even though they were behind by five points, Felton and his teammates weren't going down sheepishly.
A layup by Felton cut it to 66-63, and following a missed free throw by Bosh on the front end of a one-and-one, Scott converted a layup to make it 66-65 with 15.4 seconds remaining.
After another miss at the line by Tech, Felton penetrated and drew a foul with 7.7 seconds left. The Latta, S.C. freshman calmly sank a pair of freebies, and after Tech missed a pair of shots the clock expired with the score reading UNC 67, Tech 66. And for the fans it was jubilation. For the players it was relief.
"It was a great feeling," Felton said. "We had a lot of tough games down the stretch when things didn't go our way and went to the opposing team. Tonight it went our way, and thank God for that. And I thank my coaching staff and my teammates and the fans."
Bosh led Tech with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Elder added 13, Ed Nelson had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Lewis chipped in 10.
McCants had 14 for UNC, which was outrebounded 38-22.
UNC led for most of the first half and by as many as seven at 26-19. But the Yellow Jackets closed the half on a 16-4 run and led, 35-30 at the intermission.
But for Carolina this game was about survival and pride. And to overcome what this club has faced dating back to Sean May's season-ending injury in December to McCants' issues, to the losing and the rumors running rampant, the Heels needed leadership on the floor. And tonight they got it.
"Raymond is a relentless athlete," Scott said. "He missed three in a row but, but he's going to keep taking good shots for the team. We're confident in him and coach is confident in him.
"Jawad, he's one of the leaders on the team as a sophomore," Scott continued. "After what we went through last year, this is a piece of cake for him."
Doherty said he wants the pair to take UNC's biggest shots.
"Those are two guys capable of scoring and I like when the ball's in their hands," Doherty said about Felton and Williams. "I thought Raymond really had a nice find for Jawad on the out of bounds play when he came off the screen and hit Jawad and Jawad hit that little bank shot. Raymond hit a big 3 late in the game and obviously the foul shots."
Felton said despite the margin he knew they would win.
"There was real no doubt," Felton said. "I told my teammates we still can do this, we still can do this and we've got to execute our offense … and put the ball in the basket."
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.