After all, head coach Rick Barnes has now led Texas to a school record third consecutive appearance in the Sweet Sixteen while no current Tar Heel had played in an NCAA Tournament prior to Thursday's matchup against Air Force. Again, Texas relied heavily on its senior class that boasts Final Four experience.
"Our seniors have been the key all year," Barnes said. "I think about what they've done in terms of being the best class at Texas in terms of wins. But they're more than that because they have raised the bar for our program. They have set a great standard for teams that will follow. Tonight, even though they were really pressured by a team that can really do that, they made the plays that they had to make."
No Longhorn senior emerged taller than G Royal Ivey, who paced his team with 17 points (10 in the second half to keep Carolina at arms length), five rebounds and four assists. But despite Texas' precedent-setting trip to the next round on the strength of a clutch win over a storied program, Ivey believes this is a team that still has something to prove.
"I don't think we've proved anything right now," Ivey said. "We're still in the Tournament, but we're not content right now. We're not satisfied. We want to move on. This is a great win, but we need to put this one behind us and prepare for next week."
Despite Barnes' kudos for his seniors, it was a freshman that the sixth-year Longhorn coach wanted to receive the inbounds pass late in the game with the outcome still undetermined. It just goes to show the confidence Barnes has in F P.J. Tucker's ball handling skills.
"P.J. is our best ball handler," Barnes said. "I actually wanted him to bring the ball down the floor but he kept giving the ball to (Ivey). P.J. was the guy that we really wanted to bring it up the floor. If they did trap, he's so strong and big that he could pass out of it. We thought if we could get it from him to the middle we could really attack and get something easy, but he and I will talk about that."
But is Tucker the guy you want on the free throw line? The true freshman is a gamer but just a 67 percent foul shooter who put up an airball the first time he stood at the charity stripe in the opening round against Princeton. With 8.9 seconds remaining Saturday, Tucker hit the front end of his freebies to give Texas a 78-75 lead. But his miss on the follow-up gave the Heels one last shot. North Carolina F/G Rashad McCants led all scorers with 27 (11-of-23 FG) points but missed the bucket that counted most. The sophomore misfired on a last-second three-point attempt in front of the Tar Heel bench (his foot was on the line anyway, so even if he had hit it, it wouldn't have mattered), sending the Longhorn fans in attendance (all 190 of them) into hysterics.
If there was an MVP for the Horns, it would have to be divided among the entire Longhorn bench. Texas' subs outscored Carolina's reserves 34-7 as 11 Horns tallied points. Four Longhorns (Ivey, Tucker, C Jason Klotz, G Brandon Mouton) scored in double figures.
"Our bench was tremendous," said Mouton, who finished with 12 points (4-of-12 FG). "I could go down the line about our guys. They just came out and played their roles and they all did a great job and they executed and they stayed poised against a great defensive team that is really athletic and they were great."
A significant part of Texas' game plan was not only to come strong at 6-9 sophomore C Sean May but to run him ragged in the thin Mile High air. He picked up three quick fouls within a two-minute span early in the second half, as Texas jumped to its largest lead during a 9-0 run. Tucker's bucket following a terrific assist from C James Thomas gave Texas a 55-44 lead with 15:13 remaining.
Following an atypical 0-of-6 FG, four-turnover performance on Thursday, Klotz responded with 10 points (5-of-7 FG) and five boards while helping to limit May to just 2-of-10 from the field.
"He's a big body," Klotz said of May. "He can push you around. Once we got him out of the game, they didn't have much size to go back to. They had Jawad (Williams, at 6-9) but all their other guys are about 6-7 or 6-8 (actually, 6-4 and 6-5). But any time you've got a size advantage, you want to use that and that's what we did. That was big. It really helped us out in the second half."
It also helped that Carolina misfired on 10 of its first 13 shots to open the second half. The Horns led 44-39 at the break on the strength of 60 percent shooting from the field. The Heels hung around by outrebounding Texas, 20-14, during the first 20 minutes of play. Klotz's FG gave Texas its largest lead at 57-44 with just more than 12 minutes remaining in the contest. A pair of Ivey FTs maintained the double-digit cushion, 68-58, at the 6:20 mark.
But Carolina's trapping defense gave Texas fits down the stretch, resulting in three turnovers in as many possessions.
"They were down so they were doing anything to speed us up," Ivey said. "They're quick and athletic guys and they were getting around trapping and making us drive and it was hard to pass the ball through the traps because they're a big team, so they were running around and being real active and it was real hard to get the ball through."
Sophomore F Raymond Felton's trey narrowed the gap, 77-75, with less than 20 seconds remaining. That's when Tucker hit a free throw against the team that never gave the Raleigh native a second look.
The Longhorns found their shooters touch Saturday, connecting on 27-of-55 (49.1 percent) from the floor and 19-of-23 (82.6 percent) from the FT line. In fact, Texas did not miss a single foul shot until Thomas missed the second end of a pair with 5:33 remaining and Texas leading, 69-58. Texas scored 36 points in the paint while connecting on 5-of-13 from beyond the arc. The Heels were held to 25-of-65 (38.5 percent) FG, including 9-of-28 treys. Carolina was 16-of-19 from the charity stripe.
The win raised Texas' record to 25-7. And, as Barnes said, it raises the bar for future Longhorn programs. But there's still work to do this season, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen and Atlanta ahead, and just two wins from another trip to the Final Four.