CHAPEL HILL — It was late in North Carolinas 70-52 victory against Virginia here on Saturday when the Cavaliers trimmed a 15-point deficit to 11, giving them hope of a rally with about four and a half minutes to play.
There was a timeout not long after and the Tar Heels gathered together in a tight circle.
One of the guys in the huddle the next time said, Remember Wednesday night, UNC coach Roy Williams said. And I said, no, dont remember Wednesday night. Lets just play today. And I think that was important for us.
Three days earlier, on Wednesday night, the Heels had suffered what will be remembered as one of the most painful defeats in school history. Leading Duke by 10 with 2 minutes and 38 seconds to play, the Blue Devils went on a 13-2 run to close the game and won it, 85-84, when Austin Rivers made a long 3 as the buzzer sounded.
The focus since, at least around here, had been on how UNC (21-4, 8-2) would respond from such a debilitating loss. That the fifth-ranked Tar Heels successfully rebounded pleased Williams, who also found satisfaction that the bounce-back victory came against a worthy opponent.
We didnt want to play somebody that we were going to beat by 60, Williams said. Thatd give you false confidence. I wanted to be tested. And I think that Virginia is one of the best teams in our league and I think they gave us everything we wanted and more. But I did think we would come out very determined.
The scoreboard during the first half didnt necessarily reflect UNCs determination but Williams like his teams attitude, nonetheless. Virginia (19-5, 6-4) twice led by as many as seven points in the first half before the Tar Heels closed the half on a 15-5 run that gave them a 35-32 halftime lead.
The No. 19 Cavaliers briefly held a three-point lead early in the second half but UNC reclaimed the lead for good when Tyler Zeller banked in a hook shot off the backboard with 15:13 to play. Zeller finished with a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds, and he outperformed Virginias Mike Scott, who led his team with 18 points.
Harrison Barnes added 14 points and 11 rebounds for UNC, and Heels junior forward John Henson had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Without freshman guard P.J. Hairston, who sat out with a foot injury, the Tar Heels also received valuable contributions from Stilman White, Justin Watts and James Michael McAdoo, who finished with 9 points and seven rebounds.
Me and Justin talked about it, knowing that we were the main two bench players with Stilman, McAdoo said. So we really just looked at that as an opportunity.
The Virginia game, though, represented an opportunity for UNCs entire team from Williams on down.
Zeller most of all wanted to atone for what happened on Wednesday night. He scored 23 points against Duke, but his two missed free throws in the final minute and his deflection of an errant Duke shot into the basket had him sitting around at home later that night, staring into space and unable to sleep.
It helps put it behind you, he said of his performance on Saturday afternoon.
UNC, which struggled to make the most of its offensive rebounds against the Blue Devils, scored 23 second-chance points against the Cavaliers, who entered the game as the ACCs best defensive rebounding team. The 23-second chance points were the most UNC had scored against any ACC opponent this season.
The Tar Heels did something else on Saturday that they failed to on Wednesday, too: They finished.
One thing that we havent done this year is when weve got teams down we havent stepped on their necks, said UNC point guard Kendall Marshall. We have to learn how to step on teams necks once we get them down and not give them that hope down the stretch that they can win the game.
Virginias late hope, however faint it might have been, didnt last long. UNC ended the game on a 9-2 run and left with a victory that allows the Tar Heels to rebuild some of the confidence theyd lost days before.