Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams, both considered questionable at tip-off, showed no lingering effects from injuries, as each played nearly error-free. Williams was one of four UNC players in double figures with 18 points to go along with 12 rebounds, while Manuel recorded five assists, four rebounds and one blocked shot against just one turnover.
"I'm extremely proud of Jackie and Jawad," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Those guys were hurting, and both feel a little worn out now because they gave it everything they had."
Center Sean May collected career highs for both scoring and rebounds with 23 points and 14 boards, while Rashad McCants poured in 20 points and Raymond Felton added 13.
It was the Tar Heels' (4-0) first game against a Top 25 opponent, and other than a Dec. 20 match-up with No. 18 Wake Forest, arguably its best competition until the New Year.
"It's a big win and a big test for us," Felton said. "It's a win were not going to forget, but it's also a win we have to put behind us."
It was also Carolina's first ever win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge since its inception in 1999-2000.
"This is important because it showed us the type of team that we can be," Jawad Williams said. "We hit adversity out there, guys were injured a little bit, and we were able to come out with a win."
After the score went back and forth throughout most of the first half, Williams and McCants hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Tar Heels extend a 39-33 lead at the half.
And led by two McCants' field goals to start the second half, UNC extended its lead to 51-42. But Illinois went on a 9-1 run to get within a point with just over 15 minutes to play. Melvin Scott then fouled Deron Williams on a 3-point attempt, and he would make two of three from the free throw line to push the Illini ahead 55-54 with 13:18 remaining.
The two teams would continue exchange leads with virtually every trip up the court, until a Dee Brown 3-pointer from the corner gave Illinois (3-1) a 67-63 lead at the 9:02 mark. But behind field goals by Williams and May, Carolina had tied the score less than a minute later.
The Tar Heels would then capitalize when Brown missed his next two attempts from the beyond the arc. Brown, considered one of the best point guards in the nation, was held to just 8 points on 3-of-17 shooting.
"It was not a one-on-one thing with Dee and myself," Felton said. "He missed a lot of shots, but I thought I played pretty good defense on him to not let him get open shots and drive."
Tied 69-69 with 6:19 left to play, the game came down to coaching strength; Roy Williams – the NCAA's all-time winningest coach, and Bruce Weber – the Illini's first-year coach who systematically got the job at Illinois by way of Williams return to Carolina and Bill Self's subsequent migration to Kansas.
And thanks to inspired inside play by May, Williams and Manuel, Carolina put together an 8-0 run in crunch time to take a 77-69 lead.
"I wasn't worried," May said. " I have confidence in my teammates. It means a lot to this team to come out and get a great win. But we can't get complacent. We've got to keep working everyday."
The Tar Heels, who play at least one game in Greensboro and Charlotte every year to satisfy its western N.C. fan base, had the crowd of 16,211 on its feet throughout most of the game. UNC's full-throttle pressure defense and force the ball up at all costs offense is as exciting as gets at the college basketball level, and the fans were loving it.
By the end of the game, the team that was supposed to suffer from depth problems had worn down the one that was not.
Despite having shown flashes of his potential versus Cleveland State, freshman Reyshawn Terry did not play. Neither did the newest Tar Heel Jesse Holley, though he was in uniform. Justin Bohlander saw significant action, which included an impressive second half dunk.
Carolina returns home to face unranked George Mason Sunday at 1 p.m.