Rick Barnes said before a game against one of college basketball’s titans that he was ready for his young team to win instead of learn.
Unfortunately, today was ultimately just another lesson.
Tennessee led for almost 35 minutes against #7 North Carolina, but the Tar Heels made the plays down the stretch and escaped with a 73-71 win over the Vols on Sunday in Chapel Hill. 65% shooting buoyed UT in the 1st half, but UNC grabbed 19 offensive boards en route to overcoming a 15-point deficit.
The Vols got off to a solid start behind John Fulkerson. He stuffed the stat sheet with a block, a turnover, a rebound, a bucket, and a drawn charge in the first 3.5 minutes of the game. His energy helped Tennessee dig out of a 7-2 hole and find their footing.
After UNC hit a shot to go up 11-10, UT went on an 18-2 (!) run lasting almost 7 minutes to the under-8 TV timeout. It wasn’t driven by an insane number of 3’s (though there were 3 of them in the run) or a spate of UNC turnovers, but rather an extended stretch of solid execution on both ends of the floor.
Lamonte Turner hit a 3 to start the run, and Jordan Bowden’s 3 pushed the lead to 5 at 16-11. After Bowden’s 2nd deep one, a Hubbs elbow jumper, and a Hubbs bucket and 1, UT was suddenly up 28-13.
From there, UNC came alive with the help of 4 consecutive UT turnovers. A quick 11-4 spurt got the crowd back in it and cut UT’s lead to 32-24. That’s where the margin settled at halftime, with a Hubbs turnaround on the Vols’ last possession being answered by Heel’s star Justin Jackson’s first bucket of the game just before the half.
The second half could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Vols as two turnovers led to runouts and a quick 6-0 spurt to cut UT’s lead to 2. Fulkerson and Hubbs steadied the ship with buckets, but UNC kept hitting the offensive glass and making it pay off.
The teams kept going back and forth, matching buckets and turnovers almost one for one. Hubbs dunk? Tony Bradley dunk. Lew Evans putback layup? Isaiah Hicks putback layup. Turner head scratching turnover? Nate Britt head scratching turnover. It was...even...if nothing else.
Things stayed tight down the stretch. UT pushed the lead to 5, but 2 UNC layups cut it back to 1. After Hubbs and Grant Williams put the Vols up 5 again, UNC came back to trim the lead to 1 again.
Leading by 1 with two and a half to go, UT could not convert. A stagnant possession ended with Williams missing a 3, and UNC finally took the lead on a Justin Jackson layup. The next time down, the Vols couldn’t even get a shot as they turned it over. With under a minute to go, UNC missed but tapped in their miss to extend the lead to 72-69.
After Fulkerson cut it to 1 with 40 seconds to go, the Vols played solid defense for 28 seconds, forced a miss...and UNC got the offensive board. After Meeks made 1 of 2, Turner drove wildly into the lane, got blocked, and UNC survived.
Hubbs led the Vols with 21 points on 9 of 11 shooting, including 15 on 7/7 in the first half. Kenny Williams scored 12 to pace 3 Heels’ scorers in double figures.
Like Maui, the Vols were right there against a top 25 team, but they’re still looking to get over the hump. Games like this give you hope that Barnes has things pointed in the right direction, though it’ll take closing them out to get folks fully bought in.
The Vols will be back in action on Tuesday night against Tennessee Tech.