KANSAS CITY — Almost 20 minutes had passed since the end of North Carolinas 78-71 victory against Villanova on Friday night when Reggie Bullock, the Tar Heels junior guard, took a towel and slapped an empty chair in a display of frustration.
Bullock shook his head and paced the locker room floor. He was satisfied with the victory, happy that he and his teammates prevailed after surrendering their 20-point first-half lead. Yet Bullock was insulted, too.
Those (guys) left me open in the corner, he said, yelling to no one in particular. Like I cant shoot it.
The play Bullock described came with about five and a half minutes to play. Dexter Strickland, UNCs senior guard, quickly dribbled up the court and found Bullock wide open in the right corner. Bullocks 3-pointer gave the Tar Heels a 60-52 lead, and the shot was part of a greater run that turned the game in UNCs favor.
Bullocks 3-pointer came between two others from P.J. Hairston, the sophomore guard who led the Tar Heels with 23 points. All three of those 3s ones from Hairston, Bullock and then Hairston again came on consecutive possessions, and the final two of them came seconds after Villanova had scored.
Thats how it went for UNC (25-10) at the Sprint Center. The Tar Heels and their smaller lineup struggled against the Wildcats on the interior especially during the second half, when Villanova rebounded 13 of its own misses and scored 17 second-chance points.
But the Heels best strength their ability to find a rhythm from the perimeter, and maintain it outweighed their inability, at times, to rebound effectively. It was UNCs shooting prowess, after all, that allowed it to recover after Villanova erased the Heels 20-point lead.
I loved the mental toughness of our team the last eight or nine minutes, said UNC coach Roy Williams, who won his 700th career game. I thought earlier in the game it was all happy and smooth and the ball was going in the basket. Then all of a sudden, they started competing a little harder than we did
Im really proud of the way our team answered that.
UNC led 32-12 with seven minutes to play in the first half. But with 13 minutes and 40 seconds to play, Villanova led 45-44. It was then when Bullock made a 3-pointer in front of the UNC bench, and a timeout soon followed.
The Tar Heels walked to their bench and huddled around Williams. He spoke of Bullock's 3.
I said, Lets remember that as the basket that got us going, Williams said.
Bullock finished with 15 points and made three of his six 3-point attempts. Hairston, who played again with his left hand wrapped and taped after injuring it a week ago during the ACC tournament, made five of his eight 3-point attempts.
Bullock and Hairston combined to make eight of UNCs 11 3s, and they ignited the Heels when they most needed it.
When they took that lead it was tough, said James Michael McAdoo, who finished with 17 points. But I know personally, I just tried to draw on certain situations weve had in the past where those kinds of situations have been the turning points in the games.
McAdoo thought back to games earlier this season, when the Tar Heels were a far more fragile team than they are now. Asked if UNC could have responded to stress as well then as it did on Friday, McAdoo didnt hesitate. He remembered how the Tar Heels "crumbled" amid pressure earlier this season, and he also remembered what some said entering Friday night.
"There was a lot of hype and and people were saying were going to be soft, and Villanovas just going to hit us in the mouth," McAdoo said. "And they hit us, but we were able to take those lulls and come back.
Down by 20 points in the first half, the Wildcats (20-14) came back. They did again after Hairstons 3-pointer the final one of those 3s that came on three consecutive possessions gave UNC a 63-54 lead with about five minutes to play.
Thanks to second-chance opportunities, Villanova cut into its deficit. Defensively, the Wildcats used an attacking full-court press to create turnovers. During one sequence, the Heels lead went to from seven points to three in a span of 10 seconds.
Villanova, led by 20 points from JayVaughn Pinkston, cut UNCs lead to 67-66 with two minutes and 14 seconds to play, before Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels freshman point guard, made a 3 to push the lead back to four. Villanova trailed by two with less than two minutes to play, before Paige extended the lead again with a pair of free throws.
These three guys up here with me played their tails off, Williams said during his postgame press conference, speaking of Paige, McAdoo and Hairston. And it was fun to watch.
And now UNCs season lives on. When Williams began using a four-guard staring lineup in mid-February, he did so because he believed it gave the Heels their best chance to score. But he also understood it came with liabilities, some of which Villanova exposed on Friday.
But after their 20-point lead disappeared, the Tar Heels put together a comeback of their own. They held on, and overcame their most glaring weakness, an inability to rebound, with their best strength.
Over the course of his career, Roy Williams has railed against NCAA tournament policies regarding everything from cups to cookies. Friday night, he objected to a new rule that requires players to remain in a press conference as long as the coach is there. Previously, players were released before coaches took questions.
"Tell 'em I think it stinks," Williams said. "It's one of the dumbest things they've ever done."
Three of the last four times the Tar Heels beat Villanova in the NCAA tournament, they went on to win the national title -- in 1982, 2005 and 2009. The 1991 Final Four team also beat Villanova, while North Carolina's only tournament loss to the Wildcats was in 1985 when Villanova won the title.
The first half of the game was played in a nearly empty arena as Kansas fans, who filled the vast majority of the seats, took their time arriving for the second game against Western Kentucky.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter