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Andrew Carter | The News & Observer | December 18, 2017

How toughness carried UNC in win over Vols

  Joel Berry II scored a game-high 21 points in UNC's 78-73 win over Tennessee Sunday afternoon.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. –– There was a time in the not-so distant past when North Carolina's toughness and moxie, both physical and mental, were the source of near-constant questions, many of them about whether the Tar Heels were capable of doing the sort of thing they did here on Sunday at Tennessee.

Joel Berry, the UNC senior point guard, has been around long enough to remember that time, and he thought of it on Sunday after the Tar Heels' 78-73 victory against the Volunteers. The memories made Berry laugh, or perhaps it was the realization of how much he and his teammates have grown.

Throughout much of Berry's freshman and sophomore seasons, UNC (10-1) would have likely lost a game like the one it won on Sunday. On the road, playing against a ranked team in a sold-out arena, the pressure and the moment would have been too large for the Tar Heels. For so long, it always was.

And yet now, years later, these performances are becoming more and more routine. The Tar Heels' journey to the national championship last spring included several late-game triumphs, ones against Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon and, finally, against Gonzaga on the final Monday night of the season.

UNC defeated Arkansas again late last month in the PK80 tournament in Portland, Ore., and again thrived late. And then came Sunday, when Tennessee led throughout -- for all but about a minute and a half -- and led 70-67 with 69 seconds remaining.

From there, UNC scored nine consecutive points during the next 57 seconds. It was a frenetic stretch of defensive stops and clutch plays and, by the time it ended, the Tar Heels led 76-70 with 12 seconds remaining, and the crowd here at Thompson-Boling Arena, once so crazed, stood stunned.

Roy Williams, the UNC coach, explained his team's late-game turnaround like so:

"At the three-minute timeout," he said, "I told them, 'If you just do what I tell you to do to the best of your ability, we'll be there at the end.' ... I told them I liked the look on their face at that point."

That's part of it -- that Berry and his teammates have an unwavering faith in their head coach, and that, indeed, they've long found success in the simple act of following Williams' instructions. But that's only part of it. The success has built upon itself, and multiplied and, in turn, it has fostered more belief.

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"They have confidence," Williams said. "They have belief that if they do the right things, it will work. And I think confidence is always big."

The victory on Sunday was UNC's fifth consecutive in a game decided by fewer than 10 points. The Tar Heels' most recent defeat in such a game came last February, at Duke, but since then UNC has made a habit out of excelling when the pressure is at its greatest.

Nowhere was that more evident than last spring in the Final Four, when the Tar Heels' two victories came by a combined margin of seven points. UNC lost several important contributors after last season, including Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, and Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, who formed the starting frontcourt.

UNC faced questions about how to replace all that was lost, and whether it could remain as cohesive a unit as it was during the past two seasons. There were questions, again, about character. The victory on Sunday, in the most hostile environment the Tar Heels have experienced this season, provided some answers.

"That's always one of the things that people look at when we're coming into the season," said Berry, who on Sunday led UNC with 21 points. "Does Carolina have the toughness to be able to close out games, and compete with teams that get up in you and take you out of what you want to do?

"And I think we were able to do that today. ... And the good thing is we got our young guys to be able to see what it's like to be able to finish out the game, and know that going forward each and every game is going to be like that."

Perhaps not each and every game, but many of them could be similar. UNC hosts Wofford on Wednesday at the Smith Center, and then faces Ohio State in New Orleans before beginning the grind of ACC play. The test UNC experienced against Tennessee (7-2) served as a primer, of sorts, for what's ahead.

Afterward, Williams said UNC's freshmen "had to grow up today." Some of them did. Sterling Manley, the freshman forward, finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Garrison Brooks, another freshman, briefly gave the Tar Heels the lead with a layup with a little less than three minutes remaining.

Jalek Felton, the freshman guard played 12 minutes and didn't score, though Williams surmised that "he might've grown up even with poor play." Kenny Williams, the junior guard who finished with 15 points on Sunday, was sitting to his coach's side, listening.

"The first thing coach said when we got into the locker room was just, 'The young guys grew up a little bit today,'" Kenny Williams said. "And I think we all did."

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By the end, the result was familiar for the Tar Heels: another victory and another late-game success story, same as the kind they experienced so often during the NCAA tournament a season ago. This time, though, some of the characters are different.

UNC doesn't have Jackson on the wing anymore, punishing defenses with his penetrating and shooting. Inside, there's no one with the experience of Meeks, whose memorable block in the final moments against Gonzaga helped the Tar Heels seal their victory in the national championship.

On Sunday, though, there was Brooks, who gave his team the lead late before Tennessee took it back. And there was Kenny Williams, whose 3-pointer with 35 seconds remaining gave the Tar Heels the lead for good, after their steal off of an in-bounds pass with about one minute remaining.

Before that turnover, there was a timeout. Roy Williams called it after Berry's free throws cut Tennessee's lead to 70-69.

During the timeout, Berry said, "Coach just said, five guys look at me, and we all looked at him, and he said, 'Do what I say to do, and believe in what I say.' We took on that challenge for us and we believed in what he was saying. ... I mean, he's a Hall of Fame coach for a reason, so I think if we don't listen to him, think we're kind of stupid if we don't."

Moments later came the turnover, and then Kenny Williams' 3-pointer. And then, at last, another one of those kinds of victories that make those questions of toughness seem more and more distant.

This article is written by Andrew Carter from The News & Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.