Joel Berry II scored 21 points and Kenny Williams added 15, including a three with 32.7 seconds left that gave the Tar Heels a lead they would never relinquish, as No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville and knocked off No. 20 Tennessee, 78-73.
The Volunteers were in control for much of this game, but UNC used a 9-0 run in the final minute – a run that was aided by a pair of Tennessee turnovers – and made the shots and the plays they needed to make down the stretch to get the win.
It’s almost like North Carolina won the national title last season, their second straight year playing in the national title game.
For the first 20 minutes, North Carolina had no idea how to handle Tennessee’s defensive intensity. They committed 12 first half turnovers land trailed 38-32 at the break. But over the course of the second half, UNC got control of their turnover problems and got back into the game. Ironically enough, turnovers were precisely why the Tar Heels were able to make their comeback. Tennessee committed two turnovers in the final minute, including giving the ball away up by one with a minute left on the clock. That possession ended with Williams’ game-winning three.
Grant Williams led five Tennessee players in double-figures with 15 points.
Here are three things we can take away from this game:
1. North Carolina has their deficiencies, but they just keep on winning
There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.
But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.
And, as a result, they’re winning.
2. Tennessee is legit, but losing this game is going to hurt
Part of the reason I’m coming around on North Carolina after this win is that this is the first time that they have beaten someone truly impressive. Arkansas on a neutral is one thing. Michigan, Northern Iowa and Davidson at home are good, not great wins. Stanford on the road is whatever.
Tennessee is really good. They’re tough, they’re physical, they can defend and force turnovers, and they play in front of an arena that, when the Vols matter, can get as loud and rowdy as any. The Vols, to me, are in the conversation for top four in the SEC, are clearly a top 25 team and look like they can make a run to the second weekend of the tournament if they get a good draw. They’re legit.
Which is why this is a good win for UNC.
But it’s also a loss that the Vols should have won.
Tennessee was in control for the majority of this game. They were up at the half. They held that lead through the second half and they had the ball with the lead with less than a minute left … and turned it over. Winning is a skill. Developing the ability to execute and handle game pressure in crunch time is learned. The Vols aren’t quite there yet, and it showed in the final minute tonight.
That will sting.
3. Kenny Williams turning into a knockdown shooter is a difference-maker for UNC
Williams made one three as a freshman. One. He shot 33.8 percent from three as a sophomore.
After hitting the game-winner on Sunday evening he’s now knocking down 54.5 percent of his threes while shooting four per game. He’s turned into one of the best shooters in the ACC, which is so important for UNC. A lack of perimeter shooting has been an issue for them in recent years, but they were able to overcome it because their big men were so dominant. This year, without those dominant big men, North Carolina has to rely more on their perimeter game, and if Williams can shoot any where near this clip, Maye remains the player that he’s been most of the year and Cam Johnson comes back healthy, the Tar Heels are suddenly a team that look very, very difficult to guard.