North Carolina appeared to be headed to its second loss of the season after the first 20 minutes of its game against No. 17 UCLA on Friday in the Las Vegas Invitational.
The Bruins were having their way with the Tar Heels, shooting 52 percent from the floor in the first half. UNC was playing much like it did Thursday in a 92-89 loss to Texas, having trouble defending.
But in the second half, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels turned up the pressure, knocked down some timely shots and beat the Bruins 94-78.
It is UNC’s first win over a ranked opponent this season.
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“We didn’t cure the world,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t cure cancer. We just played better.”
UNC freshman guard Coby White, who scored 33 points against Texas, picked up where he left off. He had 19 points and 8 assists on Friday. He was 6-for-11 from the floor and did not play much in the second half because of foul trouble.
UNC senior forward Luke Maye had 16 points and 8 rebounds. Senior wing Kenny Williams had 15 points..
While the Las Vegas Invitational was UNC’s first real test, the schedule does not get any easier. No. 7 UNC (6-1) will face No. 9 Michigan (6-0) in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, but will do it coming off a victory.
UCLA (4-2) hit its first seven shots of the game and led 15-9 through the game’s first five minutes. The Bruins continued to shoot well, and led throughout first half.
Meanwhile, seniors Cam Johnson and Maye, struggled shooting. They shot a combined 2-for-11 from the floor in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Johnson, however, ended the first half with a 3-pointer to cut UCLA’s lead to five points before halftime.
“Last night they stunk it up,” coach Williams said of Johnson and Maye. “In the first half they stunk it up tonight. I said I’m just being very straight forward. I’m putting you back out there, so I must have confidence in you. So what are you worried about? At the end of the game, win or lose, we’re going to get some food, we’re going to get on an airplane, and we’re going to go to North Carolina and we’re going to play again.”
In the second half the two players responded. Johnson picked up where he left off. He knocked down a 3-pointer, scored a layup, picked up a steal and scored another layup on three consecutive possessions to tie the score at 48 with 18:07 left in the game.
“The way I played in the first half was kind of unacceptable, and I knew that,” Johnson said. “And coach sat me on the bench for a decent stretch of time there.... Message received.
“Just get back in there. It’s not what I do. It’s my fifth year in college. I shouldn’t be having those moments, so I just made a point to come back in the second half and take advantage of the opportunities.”
The sequence from Johnson gave UNC momentum. Johnson and Maye combined for 23 points in the second half, and were 8-for-12 from the floor.
“I thought Cam early was really something, but Luke made some big time shots for us too,” coach Williams said.
The two teams battled back and forth for the next five minutes, and UCLA led by two points with about 13 minutes left to play.
Over the next five minutes though, UNC ramped up its defensive pressure. The Tar Heels forced the Bruins into tough shots and went on a 17-2 run, to take a 76-64 lead with a little more than eight minutes remaining.
After that, UCLA never got closer than seven points.