The Tar Heels' 5-0 start might have ranked up there as a sort of fantasy to some, but to coach Matt Doherty, his staff, and the players, it was the real Carolina. But they might also admit that at least for now, so was tonight.
Brian Cook scored 22 points and Sean Harrington added 20 to lead the Illinois Fighting Illini to an impressive 92-65 victory over UNC before a boisterous sellout crowd of 16,500 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Assembly Hall.
"I give a lot of credit to [Illinois coach] Bill Self and his team, his staff," said Doherty, who clearly understands this is what you get when your team is the youngest in the nation. "They played an excellent ballgame. They did a better job coaching than I did, and his team executed better than my team. We came out with a great start, but it is a 40-minute game.
"I'm disappointed about the way we played and the way we performed, but I'm proud of these guys and what we've accomplished in six short games."
Trailing 46-43 early in the second half, the Tar Heels' interior questions were fully exposed as the Illini (4-0) began to dominate in the paint. Although Self's inside players were starting to accumulate foul problems, they still took it right to the Heels.
The Illini's 11-2 run that extended their lead to 58-47 came on an assortment of hi-low layups and short jumpers, and also included a 3-pointer by Harrington, who was 6-8 behind the arc on the night.
"It was tough," said Jawad Williams. "We weren't sure how to guard it (hi-low). Should we front the post or play behind? They did a good job with it and were the best team tonight."
UNC (5-1) made a run of its own, cutting the deficit to 58-52, but the Tar Heels, who have had some offensive troubles in half court sets, showed their youth. Limited patience led to poor shot selection when UNC had opportunities to get the margin to five or less. And after a few minutes of failing to cut anymore into the lead, Carolina began to fade.
The final Fighting Illini explosion finished the game on a 34-13 run manhandling the Heels with their inside game, and sent UNC home with a humbling defeat and its orange-clad home crowd into a floor-storming frenzy.
"Bill does a good job with the hi-low stuff," Doherty said. "Their strength is one of the things that we were concerned about. They have four or five guys that are big strong post players and they did a good job going hi-low and we didn't deny the ball in reversal and put as much pressure on the ball as we would like and that hurt. They executed it better than we did guard it."
UNC was paced by Sean May's 21 points. Jawad Williams tallied 15 points and eight rebounds and Rashad McCants, who was only 1-5 from beyond the arc, finished with 13 points. Point guard Raymond Felton had nine points but only three assists to go against a whopping eight turnovers.
The Tar Heels quickly jumped out to an 11-3 lead using its usual offensive ingredient for success. The unselfish Heels assisted on each of their first five baskets, two coming from May.
However, the Illini stiffened defensively and took the lead at 19-17 on a 3-pointer by Harrington with 11:13 left in the first half. Illinois' run, which topped out at 28-12 over an 11-minute stretch, giving the Big Ten team its largest lead of the half at 31-23 with 5:56 left before intermission.
The Illini's inside game wasn't only dominant in the second half. They got it going in the first 20 minutes, which is the main reason they built a lead against the smaller Heels.
"I think Cook and [Nick] Smith work real well together," May said. "Smith at 7-foot-2 sees over me at 6-foot-9, and I was trying to put pressure on him but they did a good job of just looking hi-low and finding each other."
But the Heels responded with a burst of their own. May and McCants struck quickly for five points and a McCants drive cut the margin to 31-30. UNC eventually knotted the game at 35-35 on a Jonathan Holmes 3-pointer from the right baseline, but trailed at the half, 40-36.
For some, this type of outcome was expected eventually. UNC's size issues finally caught up with them. Furthermore, its ballhandling problems were more damaging because the Heels had few opportunities to get out in the open court to camouflage the weakness.
Now it gets interesting. The Tar Heels must be resilient with Kentucky coming to the Dean Smith Center on Saturday. But maybe that's a good thing instead of playing a lesser opponent.
"Any game we play we want to get better no matter who we play," said May. "It's great we have a team like Kentucky coming up so we can challenge ourselves and get better."
The challenges will keep coming. And how this young squad handles it will go a long way in determining what they will do in March.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.