North Carolina’s best player, at least the one who has been its best for long stretches during the first month of the season, was on the bench wearing a suit. That was Joel Berry, unable to play for the second consecutive game while he heals from a sprained ankle.
Isaiah Hicks, who many thought could be the Tar Heels’ best player entering the season, was on the bench with five fouls, out of the game.
The final few minutes had arrived on Sunday at the Smith Center and UNC, running out of bodies and running out of time against Tennessee, needed someone, anyone, to make a play. Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward, delivered.
His layup high off the glass with two minutes, 13 seconds remaining gave the Tar Heels their first lead in nearly 32 minutes, and they held on for a 73-71 victory that wasn’t secure until the final horn sounded just before Tennessee’s full-court prayer of a shot that sailed long, anyway.
The Volunteers, led by 21 points from Robert Hubbs, led by as many 15 points during the first half. But UNC, which trailed by eight at halftime, began the second half on a 6-0 run, and the second half was close throughout.
The Tar Heels, led by 12 points from Kenny Williams and 11 from Nate Britt, tied the score twice in the second half. After the second time it was tied, with 11½ minutes remaining, Tennessee never led by more than five.
But UNC had difficulty breaking through, making it a one-point game three times before Jackson’s go-ahead layup with a little more than two minutes remaining. After Tennessee missed a 3-pointer on its next possession, the Tar Heels went ahead 72-69 on Brandon Robinson’s tip-in with 50 seconds remaining.
The Volunteers made it a one-point game, again, with Brandon Fulkerson’s spinning layup with 41 seconds to play. On UNC’s next possession, Kennedy Meeks came up with an offensive rebound and was fouled with nine seconds to play. He made only one of the free throws, though, giving the Volunteers a chance to tie or take the lead on their next possession.
With two seconds remaining, though, Tony Bradley, the UNC freshman, blocked Lamonte Turner’s layup attempt. That play essentially sealed the Tar Heels’ victory, though UNC coach Roy Williams said he told Tennessee coach Rick Barnes that he felt lucky.
“The luckiest I’ve been in 1,003 games,” Williams said.
UNC’s comeback completed a rally from a dreadful start. Tennessee during the first half shot 65.4 percent from the field.
Since the Smith Center opened in 1986, only three opponents had ever shot a better percentage in a half (Duke, 69.2 percent, 2013; Kentucky, 66.7 percent, 2002; and Temple, 68.1 percent, 1988).
While the Volunteers put on the kind of shooting exhibition rarely seen in this building, UNC labored to make shots like it hadn’t all season. That wasn’t a combination conducive to success for the Tar Heels, who missed 15 of their first 20 attempts from the field.
At one point, UNC missed nine consecutive shots. That stretch coincided with some of Tennessee’s most effective possessions. Over the span of about eight minutes – between about the 13-minute mark and when five minutes remained before halftime – Tennessee went 9-for-10 from the field.
Before that eight-minute stretch began, Tennessee led 13-11. By the time it ended, the Volunteers led 34-24, and the Tar Heels were trying to rally from a deficit that was once 15 points wide.