CHAPEL HILL — If there was any doubt how badly North Carolina needed this win, Roy Williams let everyone know in the second half - not by whipping out a BB gun to defend the Smith Center against any red-clad Wisconsin fans who dared venture into the good seats, but by whipping off his suit coat at a crucial moment Wednesday night.
"I don't know why I did it," Williams said. "Looked like an idiot on TV, I guess."
Suitably inspired, Tyler Zeller's ensuing free throws tied a game North Carolina had trailed for much of the half, and the Tar Heels would shortly take the lead, take control, and take a much needed 60-57 victory from the Badgers - one the ACC needed as badly as North Carolina.
North Carolina's triumph meant nothing to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which was over before this game began. In a year the ACC might be historically bad, with a few teams that would struggle in the Atlantic Sun/Big South Challenge, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State are about all there is to get enthused about, with N.C. State's resurgence figuring locally as well.
Before the excruciatingly late 9:40 p.m. tip, Duke, Florida State and N.C. State had lost their challenge games - one close and controversial, the other two ... not.
That left Virginia's win against Michigan on Tuesday as the only peg where the league could hang its hat, unless you count Wake Forest beating Nebraska (and any win is a good one for Wake Forest these days). The ACC desperately needed the Tar Heels to beat the Badgers, for pride's sake if nothing else.
The league wasn't the only one looking to rediscover a little pride.
Coming off last weekend's confidence-shaking loss to Nevada-Las Vegas, the Tar Heels were desperate for a win. They're not be the first Vegas visitor to wake up Sunday morning wondering where it all went wrong, but they're one of very few to lose the No. 1 ranking instead of the college fund.
Between the awful perimeter defense, the sloppy offense and Harrison Barnes' balky ankle, the Tar Heels went out to Las Vegas thinking nothing could possibly go wrong and returned wondering how they could fix everything that went wrong.
That made Wednesday as much a litmus test for the Tar Heels as it was for the ACC.
Barnes started slowly, but hit a jab-step jumper that showed the ankle wasn't an issue, then took over in the second half. The Tar Heels did a good job on Wisconsin's outside shooting, Dexter Strickland and Kendall Marshall on Badgers guard Jordan Taylor in particular, and a better job on the boards.
"The difference between them and UNLV was UNLV got comfortable out there and started knocking them down," said John Henson, who was one short of his career-high with 17 rebounds. "If you can keep a team on its heels, especially a 3-point shooting team like Wisconsin, they were shooting 49 percent from 3, you have a good chance to win. That was their game."
Unlike the UNLV game, Williams shed his coat and Barnes shed defenders, single-handedly shaking the North Carolina offense loose, scoring 12 points during an 18-5 run that turned the game around.
It'll be different against Kentucky, which now holds the No. 1 ranking the Tar Heels relinquished, because the Badgers didn't bring the penetration threat or the inside game the Wildcats will. Still, after this win, the Tar Heels are in better shape than the rest of the ACC is right now.
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