North Carolina came into Wednesday night close to full strength for the first time this season. The Tar Heels left wondering whether they'll ever be consistent enough for it to matter.
Spearheaded by a dominant effort on the boards and a break-neck pace, Texas held on as a Marcus Paige's last-second shot fell short to defeat No. 14 North Carolina, 86-83, at the Dean E. Smith Center.
The Longhorns (10-1) came into Wednesday night's contest with five straight wins but also skepticism about their schedule. They had yet to play a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and Ken Pomeroy's rankings had Texas' schedule at No. 249.
Rick Barnes' team has nothing left to prove after its latest triumph. Texas trailed for only 49 seconds in the entire game while taking advantage of North Carolina's lack of discipline and getting clutch performances when the Tar Heels tried to get back into the contest.
With forward Jonathan Holmes, the Longhorns' most experienced player, dealing with painful cramps on the bench throughout the second half, guard Javan Felix proved he wasn't afraid of the moment. After a Nate Britt free throw tied the game at 72-72 with 4:06 remaining, Felix scored eight of Texas' next 10 points to give the Longhorns an 82-77 lead they just barely held onto.
A series of free throws and fouls in the final minute, including a flagrant on UT guard Isaiah Taylor, brought the Tar Heels back into the game. Marcus Paige's three-point jumper with 15 seconds remaining made the score 84-83 in Texas' favor and put the onus on the young Longhorns to close out the game.
Luckily, they proved up to the task. Demarcus Holland missed two critical free throws, but in a sequence that defined the contest, picked up the offensive rebound and dropped in a layup to finalize the score.
The Tar Heels have been struggling to rebound the ball all season, and Texas took advantage of North Carolina's lack of discipline in boxing out and dominated on the offensive boards. The Longhorns grabbed 51 total rebounds, including 20 on the offensive glass to give themselves critical opportunities for easy baskets.
Taylor led the way with 16 points. Holland and Holmes each chipped in 15 with the latter being the best player on the floor whenever he could get through the pain. Holmes' 10 boards tied with Connor Lammert for the game-high and gave the junior forward his second double-double of the season.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels succumbed to another bugaboo that has plagued them all season: free throws. North Carolina managed to hit a paltry 24-of-47 from the charity stripe, including a 5-of-15 performance from James Michael McAdoo.
The Heels' struggles at the line helped bail out a Texas squad that spent much of the second half in foul trouble. After racking up five personals within the first two minutes of the second half, Texas' fate clearly became tied to whether North Carolina could shake its struggles.
Roy Williams' squad came into Wednesday hoping for a celebration as the NCAA accepted the Tar Heels' appeal to grant guard Leslie McDonald his eligibility just hours before tip. McDonald and P.J. Hairston missed the season's first nine games due to eligibility issues. Hairston has still not been granted his eligibility.
Within moments of the opening tip, though, Roy Williams was going back down his bench after another loss. Joel James suffered a knee injury early in the first half on a rebound attempt and did not return. The team expects a better prognosis on Thursday. While he plays limited minutes, James is one of the Heels' best rebounders and could have helped out in that facet.
McDonald acquitted himself fine in his first action in months, finishing with 15 points and four rebounds while knocking down four three-pointers. As Texas ran up and down the floor to jut out to an early lead, the North Carolina offense often boiled down to the Marcus Paige show. He had 15 of his game-high 23 points in the first half while adding seven rebounds.
Wednesday's loss was the Tar Heels' third of the season against non-ranked opponents. Juxtaposed against victories over Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State, North Carolina is arguably the most inconsistent team in the nation.
Then again, after this performance, perhaps Texas deserved a ranking all along.
|F Jonathan Holmes||A-|
|C Cameron Ridley||C|
|G Demarcus Holland||B-|
|G Isaiah Taylor||C-|
|G Kendal Yancy||D+|
|F Connor Lammert||B+|
|C Prince Ibeh||B-|
|G Javan Felix||D|
|G Damarcus Croaker||C|
|F James Michael McAdoo||C+|
|F Joel James||N/A (injured)|
|F J.P. Tokoto||C|
|G Nate Britt||C+|
|G Marcus Paige||A-|
|F Brice Johnson||C+|
|F Desmond Hubert||C|
|F Kennedy Meeks||C+|
|F Isaiah Hicks||C|
|F Jackson Simmons||C+|
|G Leslie McDonald||B|
Players of the Game: Marcus Paige (G, North Carolina) and Jonathan Holmes (F, Texas)
While a majority of Paige's effectiveness came in the first half, it came at a time when his teammates needed him most. With Texas dominating on the glass and scoring at a rapid rate, Paige almost single-handedly kept the Tar Heels in the game.
He knocked down each of his three shots from beyond the arc and did a stellar job of forcing the issue in the paint, shooting six free throws. It was impossible to expect that level of efficiency for Paige in the second half, but he still acquitted himself quite nicely.
This was his fifth 20-point performance of the season, and you have to wonder where North Carolina would be without him. It didn't result in a win on Wednesday, but you can't fault the effort here.
Effort was at the center of everything Holmes did. The junior forward fought cramps and bigger bodies in the middle to grab 10 rebounds, highlighted by his five on the offensive glass. He hustled on both ends of the floor, stretching the North Carolina zone on offense and providing a solid interior presence defensively with his athleticism.
As his cramping issues continued to flare up throughout the second half, you could tell how much the Longhorns missed him. Without someone to serve as a threat beyond the arc, North Carolina could pack in the defense and suffocate the young wings who wanted to drive toward the bucket.
The Longhorns' uptick in schedule difficulty won't be quitting anytime soon. Texas hosts No. 5 Michigan State at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday. North Carolina is also in action Saturday as Davidson tries to pull off an upset at the Dean Dome.
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