"The crowd played a part in that and we realized we didn't want our season to end just yet," Jawad Williams said. "We have a fun group of guys and I think nobody was ready to call it quits yet."
UNC (18-15) started the game strong, with an 11-0 run that gave them a 14-6 lead at the 14:53 mark in the first half. And the Heels kept the advantage until they hit one of their trademarks droughts, which have been customary this season for this young team.
Over a 7:03 stretch near the end of the half, UNC failed to score a field goal, which included a 15-0 DePaul run and led to a 35-29 halftime deficit.
However, that's when the Heels woke up.
"We got into a lull there with eight minutes to go in the second half, could have hung our heads in the second half, but a guy named Raymond Felton came out and boy did he set the tone with his defense."
Surprising the Blue Demons (16-13) with a full-court press, Carolina roared out of the locker room with a number of steals, several of which by Felton, and breakaway baskets. A Williams three capped a head-spinning 16-3 run over the first 2:58 of the half.
"They average about 15 turnovers a game," Doherty said, "so we wanted to create a little more energy, wanted them to not get it inside, we also wanted to get it where they were taking quicker shots with longer rebounds."
The defensive change yielded immediate dividends and helped to quickly put the game out of reach. The Heels led 45-38 and DePaul was unable to cut into the lead, which peaked at 16 points.
"We just knew we had to buckle down and play, pick up the defense and play hard, David Noel said. "And that's what we did."
And that's why they won.
Noel led UNC with a team-high, and career-high, 21 points and 11 rebounds.
"He's playing great basketball right now," Williams said. "He had his bumps early, but that's going to happen to a freshman, especially in a conference like this. He's just showing the type of player he's going to be in the future."
Doherty highlighted the fact that Noel's points came within the flow of the offense.
"The thing about David, you look at his numbers, but he's so unselfish," the Carolina coach said. "And he turned down some shots today to get the team better shots, and that's team basketball – that's Carolina basketball."
Rashad McCants posted 19 points and Williams contributed 16 points. Felton totaled 10 points, nine assists and four steals.
"His defensive energy, his leadership, his toughness was unbelievable," Doherty said of his freshman point guard. "Everyone fed off of that. I wouldn't trade him for any player in the country."
But the most intriguing story of the evening was not on the floor but rather in the stands. The official attendance was 10,345, less than half of capacity, but at times the Smith Center was louder than it has been all season.
"You notice that," Williams said. "Sometimes you try to be focused, but you notice a lot of unfamiliar people and they gave us a lot of energy."
Doherty added, "I appreciate the fans, they were awesome. I really think they gave us a lot of energy – we fed off them."
Due to the game's general admission policy, fans lined up outside in advance stretching all the way to the parking lot. When the arena doors opened slightly after 7 p.m., the eager die-hards raced to the front rows and filled half of the entire lower seating section, cheering for the two hours until tipoff and thundering during the game.
"It was the best crowd I've ever been associated with," McCants said. "They were amazing. From warm-ups, they gave us a standing ovation. They're people who are glad to be out there. I wish we could have those kinds of people in those seats all year round because that makes us play a whole lot better."
Freshman Sean May was not dressed and has returned to the sideline for the remainder of the season because of a right ankle sprain suffered in Greensboro.
"He twisted his ankle against Duke," Doherty said. "His left foot is the one with the screw in it, his right foot is the good one – he twisted the good one and he couldn't practice yesterday. He couldn't have played today. I want him healthy so he can have a really productive summer."
The Tar Heels' second round NIT opponent will be determined Thursday evening in Laramie, Wy., as UNC faces the winner of Eastern Washington at Wyoming. UNC will likely be chosen to host the game, which is to be played on Monday or Tuesday.
And thanks in part to a unique crowd, the players have put the disappointment of not making the NCAAs behind them and are approaching the rest of this tournament with a different mindset.
"We have a chance to prove a lot of people wrong," Williams said. "We were faced with a lot of adversity this year and we kept playing through it. We got that [disappointment] out of our system. We realized there's nothing we can do with the past – that we've just got to move on."
Noel added, "It's another chance to play basketball. Monday or Tuesday we'll have a chance to play in this great gym again."