Tony Bradley is 6-feet, 10-inches tall, and he said on Sunday that he averaged about five or six blocks per game during his high school years, but never had he blocked a shot of so much significance, amid this kind of pressure.
It was late in the second half on Sunday, in the tense final seconds, when North Carolina found itself in a more difficult game against Tennessee than the Tar Heels could have imagined, the resounding favorites they were. UNC led by two points, Tennessee with possession.
The seconds ticked away. Nine, eight … five, four …
Lajonte Turner, the Volunteers’ freshman point guard, made a move into the lane. Bradley, playing his man in the post, stepped forward and jumped just as Turner did, swatting Turner’s shot away, preserving UNC’s lead with two seconds left and effectively sealing its 73-71 victory.
During his first 11 college games, Bradley has produced his share of memorable moments, his share of highlights. He finished with a double-double on Sunday – 10 points and 10 rebounds – but his lone block was among UNC’s most critical plays.
Bradley afterward described it as his most meaningful play, 11 games into his freshman season.
“Saved the game pretty much,” he said with a smile.
Fouled after the block, Bradley missed two free throws on the other end. But only nine-tenths of a second remained then and after the second miss, all Tennessee could do was try to attempt a long full-court heave toward the basket. The attempt came after time expired, anyway.
And so it ended, a dramatic victory that in some ways was as improbable as the thought of a close, competitive game would have been before it began. Tennessee (4-4), after all, entered the Smith Center with three defeats – one of them against Chattanooga, a team No. 7 UNC (10-1) beat by 40 points last month.
But Tennessee so thoroughly controlled things that Roy Williams, the UNC coach, essentially apologized to Tennessee coach Rick Barnes afterward. Williams said he told Barnes that he felt as lucky as he’d ever been in his 29 years.
Williams recently coached his 1,000th game as a Division I college head coach. This was his 1,003rd game – a number he referenced afterward.
“That’s the luckiest I’ve ever been in 1,003 games,” he said.
It might have been at least half-hyperbole, but there was some truth in it, too. The Volunteers shot 65.4 percent during the first half – the fourth-best percentage by a UNC opponent in a half in the history of the Smith Center, which opened in 1986 – and Tennessee led by as many as 15 points.
The Tar Heels were playing their second consecutive game without their starting backcourt. Joel Berry, the junior point guard who has been UNC’s best, most consistent player during the first month of the season, missed his second consecutive game while recovering from a sprained ankle.
Berry sat a couple of seats down on the bench from Theo Pinson, the junior wing forward who has yet to play this season. The Tar Heels have missed Pinson’s versatility, and energy, early in the season and they missed Berry’s presence, again, on Sunday.
“You could see how much we need him, one,” Nate Britt, the senior guard, said afterward. “But Joel brings that energy on both sides of the court. And I think that’s what we’ve missed, and we’ve had to get used to playing without, since he’s been out.”
Britt tried to bring it, but his poor shooting flustered and frustrated him. He missed eight of his first 10 shots – after missing all eight from the field last Wednesday in a nine-point victory against Davidson – though Britt made three of his last four shots against Tennessee and finished with 11 points.
The Tar Heels’ offense has appeared sluggish, slower, without Berry leading it. Britt and his teammates were especially discombulated early, missing nine consecutive shots at one point and 15 of their first 20, overall.
Meanwhile, the Volunteers, led by Robert Hubbs’ 21 points, made nine of 10 shots from the field during one eight-minute stretch. During that span, they built a 15-point lead that UNC didn’t erase until Justin Jackson’s layup, high off the glass, with a little more than two minutes remaining.
That, finally, gave the Tar Heels a lead they’d long sought. Jackson’s shot came after UNC had cut Tennessee’s lead to a single point on three separate occasions in the second half. Twice UNC tied the score only to see Tennessee take the lead back.
Jackson, after making a career-high seven 3-pointers against Davidson, missed all six of his 3-point attempts against Tennessee. That was indicative of the kind of game it was for UNC, which missed 15 of its 17 3-point attempts.
In the final minutes, though, Jackson made a pivotal shot to give the Tar Heels their first lead since 14½ minutes remained in the first half. From there the Tar Heels held on, thanks to Brandon Robinson’s putback in the final minute and then, finally, to Bradley’s block in the final seconds.
The 6-10 senior Isaiah Hicks, who fouled out after scoring only six points, said earlier this season that Bradley was just beginning to understand his potential as a shot-blocker. It has been a process, though. Bradley said he often avoids going for blocks for fear of fouling.
With the seconds winding down and the tying shot rising toward him, Bradley put that fear out of his mind on Sunday. He said he thought only of making the play – one that helped the Tar Heels win a game Williams thought they didn’t have much business winning.