Despite the absence of starting center Sean May, it added up to the North Carolina Tar Heels, led by Jawad Williams' 17 points and 21 from Rashad McCants, salvaging their weekend in the Big Apple by knocking off host St. John's, 63-59, in the consolation game of the 50th Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.
And in the process, the Heels exorcised some of Friday night's demons, and displayed resilience not common in such a young squad.
"I thought our kids showed a lot of courage and poise to gut out a tough win," UNC Coach Matt Doherty said. "I was real proud of my team. We've had some big wins this year--Kansas in this building, Stanford in this building, and [at] Florida State. This is as big a win for us because the circumstances were very unique. I'm real proud of my guys."
McCants says rebounding from the Iona loss was paramount for the team to move on.
"We had to rebound from that loss, and learn from it," the 6-foot-4 freshman said. "We had to just play as hard as we could and that would take care of things. It was a tough game, but we knew that we could do what it took to get the victory, and we did."
Also impressive is that UNC (8-3) won the kind of grinder that has defined the Red Storm (5-3) and this building, which, according to Doherty, might be the best way to overcome what transpired just 21 hours earlier.
"If you could draw it up, this is the way you'd draw it up," Doherty said. "I think our guys gutted it out. We haven't worked on press offense. We haven't worked on a lot of things, foul trouble. I was proud of the guys keeping their poise in a tough environment."
The Tar Heels trailed just once – 28-27 with 1:13 left in the first half – but were continually forced to fend off the Johnnies. St. John's was within one point three times in the second half and two points six other times, but on each occasion the Tar Heels responded.
Williams, McCants, and Byron Sanders, who started in place of May at center, each sank a pair of free throws to keep UNC ahead 47-44 despite going 5:53 with only one field goal before a Felton 3-pointer gave Carolina a 50-44 cushion on what may have been the game's biggest moment.
Following Jackie Manuel's strip of St. John's Eric King under the Red Storm's basket, the 6-foot-5 sophomore from West Palm Beach, Fla. snared a pair of offensive rebounds on missed 3-pointers before feeding Felton (11 points, nine assists) for his clutch shot. The sequence personified UNC's effort, and certainly Manuel's value.
"He's an energy guy," Doherty said about Manuel, who finished with four points, three assists and just one turnover. "He's a high energy guy. And, he's a great offensive rebounder and a great defender. I thought those offensive rebounds were key, and that shot by Raymond was a big, big shot for us."
Manuel clearly understands his role.
"I think that my only two rebounds kind of took a little bit out of them," Manuel said about the sequence. "The little things are me. That's my game. The little things help us win. We need that and I know I am the one that can do that for us."
Although the Johnnies stayed close, the rest of the game was about Carolina - the nation's youngest team - maintaining the lead and securing a victory in the building that was so kind to them around Thanksgiving, and so cruel the night before.
"It was a good experience for us," said Williams, who hit a key 3-pointer to put UNC up 56-51 with 3:12 left. "It's going to help us in ACC play. Then again, I think our team did a great job of coming together, of filling that void from Sean's absence."
Wooden Award candidate Marcus Hatten led St. John's with 19 points while freshman point guard and McDonald's All-American Elijah Ingram added 14.
The Tar Heels opened up an 8-2 lead, keyed by a pair of baskets from Williams, who missed Friday's loss to Iona due to illness. The streaky half continued as the Johnnies tied it at 10 before a 7-2 spurt by the Tar Heels that included a 3-pointer and steal and slam dunk by Felton put UNC up 17-12 with 8:57 left in the first half.
Carolina kept its distance from the Red Storm until an 8-1 run put Mike Jarvis' team ahead 28-27. Carolina closed the first half in similar fashion to Friday night, on a 3-pointer (by Williams) just before the buzzer sounded. UNC led at the half, 32-29.
That 3-pointer typified Williams' performance. The 6-foot-9 sophomore from Cleveland was a clutch performer all day, finishing with 10 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. He did turn the ball over four times, but with May out, his responsibilities have increased, and today, less than 24 hours after suffering from a stomach virus, he was A-okay.
"I was just happy to play," Williams said. "You always look forward to playing a basketball game. There are a lot of people that are less fortunate than us so I look forward to it every day."
And the Heels were fortunate for the addition of Melvin Scott, who sat out Friday's loss while serving a one-game suspension, and seven minutes from Damion Grant despite his obvious lack of conditioning and strength in his wounded knees, extended their bench significantly from the night before, especially considering UNC's foul trouble, which included Sanders and Manuel being disqualified.
"I think I can help the team with my ballhandling and against pressure defenses," Scott said. "And when we got into foul trouble, I think we all came through on the glass and by taking care of the ball. I think everyone chipped in tonight. It was a total team effort."
Team effort is how UNC will win any future games. And for at least one afternoon, the Heels, who have equaled last year's win total, got just that.
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.