On one hand, Texas clobbered the visiting Tar Heels 85-67, putting up their highest point-total of the season while holding the No. 23 team in the nation to a season-low 31.3 percent from the field. And yet, as the clock ticked down on the Longhorns' signature win to-date, chatter focused mostly on a Yahoo! Report that indicated that Texas point guard Myck Kabongo would be suspended for the rest of the year.
"There's a process that every athlete goes through," said Texas coach Rick Barnes afterward. "All I can tell you is that process is not done."
Of course, Kabongo wasn't on the court Wednesday for the Longhorns, with freshman Javan Felix putting out arguably his best game in a Texas uniform. Facing 37 minutes of what Texas coach Rick Barnes called the most pressure Felix had faced all year, the miniature maestro scored eight points, dropped eight assists and had three steals while routinely breaking through a trapping Tar Heel defense.
"They looked more decisive than we've been," Barnes said. "The last game I was seeing more of that. I told them all year that we would average a bunch of points if we stopped turning it over. Even in the first half, we took some shots that were not great shots but I'd rather it be that way right now because we can get that cleaned up. It was really a great win for us."
For a small window, before the cloud of the Kabongo-NCAA announcement, there was just successful Texas basketball. The Longhorns flustered the Tar Heels, out-running the nation's No. 2 team in raw tempo for easy points, turning them over and limiting their good shot attempts. Texas raced out to a huge first-half lead, then protected it when the Tar Heels came roaring back.
Twice, Carolina chopped the lead down to four points in the second half, and both times, Texas pushed it back up to double digits. The last time came at 7:48, when a Reggie Bullock jumper sliced the Texas advantage to 60-56.
But Sheldon McClellan hit one-of-two free throws, then found Cameron Ridley for a dunk on the Longhorns' next possession. A jumper and a three-pointer from Julien Lewis later — the latter assisted on by McClellan — and Texas led 68-58 with 4:48 remaining. The lead hovered between eight and 10 until the final minute or so, when Texas hit most of its free throws to pull away and win by 18.
With Felix getting the ball to the right spots, four Longhorns scored in double digits, with McClellan's 18 points leading the way. Jonathan Holmes hit two three-pointers on his way to a 15-point, eight-rebound night, and Lewis had 16 points. Ioannis Papapetrou was huge on the defensive glass, grabbing nine of his 10 rebounds on that end. He also had 10 points.
"I think it's pretty big for us," Holmes said. "We've had a couple tough losses because we weren't playing as hard as we should have, but tonight we came out, played harder than them and did what we expected to do. It definitely sets the bar higher for us."
Reggie Bullock had 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Tar Heels (8-3), while James Michael McAdoo had 14 points and nine boards.
"It was an ugly night for us to say the least," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "They were the more aggressive team."
Kabongo's eligibility was a ready-made excuse when Texas lost to Chaminade and faltered down the stretch in games like USC and UCLA, as in "this team will be a lot better when Kabongo gets back." But if the Y! story proves accurate, the burden will continue to be heavy on Felix, who leads the Longhorns in minutes with 35.2 per contest. Lately, Texas has been able to steal a few minutes at the point with DeMarcus Holland, and that may need to become more of a long-term solution.
But on a night when a big win was disrupted by such negative news, perhaps Felix's play can serve as a sort of silver lining. With just two games left before conference play, the Longhorns now have what few other teams in the league can boast of: a signature win.
Texas (7-4) will travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State at 1 p.m. on Saturday.