The youngest team in the nation and missing center Sean May for the sixth consecutive game, UNC was once again the source of local controversy due to reported relationship issues within the program. The Heels were not hitting free throws down the stretch that could have salted the game away. And also consider that UConn methodically chipped away at what was once a 23-4 deficit, finally overtaking the Tar Heels with just over a minute to play.
The game was theirs to lose. But they didn't.
Jawad Wiliams hit a 12-foot jump shot with just under a minute to play and Rashad McCants (27 points) netted a pair of free throws to give UNC a three-point cushion with 3.3 seconds left as Carolina held off the Huskies, 68-65, before a rowdy sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean Smith Center.
"I'm extremely proud of my team," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "For a young team to go against a team of UConn's stature and ability is tough. The press, they've got great talent and to answer that run, especially at the end was big."
For a lengthy stretch in the second half neither team took advantage of golden opportunities. UConn (11-2) failed to get closer than three points on many possessions because of a combination of poor shot selection and excellent defense by the Tar Heels.
UNC, on the other hand, missed numerous opportunities to extend its lead beyond six, which could have sent the usually patient Huskies into minor panic form.
But after Carolina (11-5) missed eight of 14 from the charity stripe over a seven-minute stretch, the Huskies were finally able to take advantage of UNC's gifts.
Rashad Anderson drained a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 64-61 with 2:55 left. A minute later Hilton Armstrong converted a pair of free throws to cut the margin to one before Emeka Okafor slammed home a fast-break dunk to give UConn its only lead with 1:16 left, prompting UNC to call a time out.
"I didn't panic," Raymond Felton said about the Huskies taking the lead. "I knew we'd get a great shot."
Williams felt the same way.
"I wasn't really nervous," he said. "I knew we still had another possession and we have enough scorers on this team to get the job done."
But on a designed play in which Williams and McCants were the options, Felton found Williams (10 points, five rebounds) near the edge of the free throw lane, and the sophomore from Cleveland nailed a 12-foot jumper to give Carolina the lead for good with 56.9 seconds to play.
"I had it (the shot) in the Miami game and figured I'd hit it then," Williams said. "But today I got the same shot and I have confidence in myself that I can hit it and I did."
Jackie Manuel (four points, six rebounds) rebounded Ben Gordon's missed 3-pointer 20 seconds later and the Tar Heels ran the clock down to 3.3 seconds before McCants was fouled and sunk two free throws for the final score.
Gordon missed a 3 as time expired and in seconds the Dean Dome floor transformed into was a sea of students, celebrating a victory few thought was possible.
"I feel great," Felton said. "I knew we were going to come in (and) beat them. I had a lot of confidence about that. It was a tough test for us, and we passed it."
Okafor, who finished with six blocks and seven rebounds - just two on the offensive end - led the Huskies with 13 points. Denham Brown and Gordon, who was only 5-19 from the field, added 10 apiece.
Felton finished with 11 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals, and five turnovers for Carolina. Freshman David Noel came off the bench to chip in seven, including a pair of big 3-pointers.
The Tar Heels exploded right out of the gate, jumping out to leads of 13-0 and 23-4 on the strength of excellent defense, red-hot 3-point shooting, and opportunistic open court play.
But UConn began to chip away at the margin against UNC's 2-3 zone, which they floatd in and out of in the first 10 minutes of the game. The Huskies went from getting few looks anywhere near the basket to at least one per possession.
But the Heels managed enough jams and 3s to hold a 38-27 lead at the half.
And for Carolina to hold off not only one of the nation's best teams, but top programs and great coaches of the last decade speaks volumes about the progress it is making. This win was about grit and defense, especially the job Byron Sanders did on Okafor, a likely lottery pick in next spring's draft if he chooses to enter.
"We just played good help defense and cut off penetration and did our best to keep the ball out of their best players' hands, Okafor and Ben Gordon. We just helped each other."
And help each other they did. And as far as the players are concerned, that's enough evidence that this team is growing, both together and on the court.
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.