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CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina fell behind by double digits early in Wednesday night's home game in the Smith Center against Texas, only to rally down the stretch in the second half to tie the game and provide themselves a chance to win.
But the Longhorns caught almost every important break, including a big offensive rebound and putback in the final seconds by Demarcus Holland, to claim an 86-83 non-conference triumph over the Tar Heels.
The Longhorns got 16 points from Isaiah Taylor and 15 points from Holland to offset a game-high 23 points from Marcus Paige and 15 points from Leslie McDonald, making his first appearance of the season after being cleared to play earlier in the day by the NCAA.
"We had an inkling of (McDonald's return) the last 36 to 48 hours, and I found out for sure this afternoon," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately after the game.
"It felt good (to return)," added McDonald, who received a warm standing ovation and loud cheer from the Smith Center faithful upon his entering the game for the first time. "My hat goes off to the people that have supported me---fans, my family, and everybody that was behind me. I had to get a couple kinks out."
Williams scoffs at the notion that McDonald served as a hindrance or distraction for the Tar Heels coming into this game.
"No, that's a bunch of garbage (that he hindered the team's effort). They guys have to get out there and box out and go after the doggone basketball. (We're) still letting people run by you and get the doggone rebound every time. We had eight turnovers they turned into 12 points. It didn't have anything to do with Leslie being a negative. He was a positive."
The loss drops UNC to 7-3 overall on the season, while Rick Barnes' upstart Texas squad improves to 10-1.
"They (Texas) played harder than us," said Paige, who added seven rebounds and three assists, and was a perfect eight-for-eight from the free throw line for UNC.
It's another victory for Barnes over Williams, who he battled with for years in the Big Twelve when Williams was at Kansas, and has played consistently since Williams came to UNC.
"Great win for us. It was truly a team win," said Barnes. "I'm really proud of our guys because one, we came out with the attitude we wanted from the beginning. Really a great win for us."
Barnes has gotten the better of WIlliams in the recent UNC-Texas rivalry, beating the Tar Heels twice in the state of Texas (in Dallas in 2009 and Austin last year), and twice in the state of North Carolina (2010 in Greensboro and now this season in Chapel Hill).
"I'm not very pleased with our intensity, with our effort, or with our concentration," said Williams.
The first half largely belonged to the visitors from Austin, as Texas dominated the glass---out-rebounding UNC 29-15 and 14-5 on the offensive boards over the first 20 minutes---as the Longhorns led by as much as 13 points and took a 53-42 lead into halftime.
"In my career, when I think of teams that really run, it would be North Carolina, Michigan State, and Connecticut," said Barnes. "We said we were going to run and be committed to it and attack, and we've done it. People have tried to slow us down. They (UNC) did a good job on Isaiah at times."
"I thought it was ridiculous (how we played) in the first half," replied Williams. "The second half we tried harder."
Carolina once again did itself no favors at the free throw line, making just 24 of 47 attempts from the charity stripe.
Considering the Tar Heels were within a possession of tying in the closing seconds was almost miraculous given Texas's dominance on the boards and the way UNC again failed to capitalize at the free throw line.
Simply stated, a stronger performance at the foul line by Carolina, and things would have been much different.
"You have to be tough enough to step up and make shots," said Williams. "I'm tired of talking about free throws. You have to be tough enough to step up and make the doggone thing or go play soccer. Tell Anson (Dorrance) I'm not trying to bag on his sport, but God Almighty."
"They are free opportunities to get points," added Paige. "The clock stops. You have to take advantage of them. I know we miss a lot of them, and it hurts when you're trying to make runs."
But even with the struggles from the line, UNC slowly but surely whittled at the Texas advantage in the second half, pulling within single digits and chipping away until a McDonald three-pointer made the score 72-68 with 5:35 to go.
After a James Michael McAdoo free throw at the 5:09 mark made the score 72-69, McAdoo scored again on a bucket in the low post, bringing UNC within 72-71.
Nate Britt had a chance to give Carolina its first lead with two free throw attempts, but he made one and missed one, nonetheless tying the game (72-72) for the first time since the game's opening minutes, around the time starting big man Joel James went down with an apparent knee injury.
After the game Williams said he thinks its an MCL (knee) issue with James, who didn't return to the action.
"I think at this time it's all guesswork until they do the MRI. Doug (UNC's trainer) said he thinks it looks like the MCL. The ACL looks like it's ok. He thinks it's the MCL and we'll just have to wait until we do the MRI," said Williams.
Javan Felix came up huge for Texas down the stretch, making three baskets, including two three-pointers, to move the Longhorns in front 82-77 with only 1:06 to go.
But even then UNC had its chances, as the Tar Heels got a couple free throws, and then a three-pointer by Paige with 14 seconds left to pull Carolina back within 84-83.
But just when the Tar Heels really needed a rebound, they allowed Holland to waltz free through the lane after missing two free throws for the all-important putback to give Texas a three-point advantage and force UNC into a desperation attempt by Paige at the buzzer, which rimmed in and out.
"It would have been nice if we had boxed out the shooter on the free throw at the end, which we work on every day," said Williams.
"(I) got a clean look," added Paige on his final shot attempt. "It was a little further out than I would have liked it, but I got a clean look at the basket and it just rimmed out. That (play) was designed. We ran that exactly how it was designed."
The game was marred by fouls on both ends of the floor, as the teams combined for a whopping 55 personal fouls.
Two players fouled out of the game (McAdoo for UNC and Cameron Ridley for Texas) while five different players between the teams finished with four fouls, and four others finished with three fouls.
"Serious foul trouble we had to work through, and I couldn't have imagined that we would do some of the things we had to do to just piecemeal some things together," said Barnes. "I think our guys showed a lot of grit."
Carolina returns to game action Saturday afternoon at 5:00 in the Dean Dome against Davidson, but Coach Williams said that the UNC players will be brought back in at 5:00 am Thursday morning for a workout after Wednesday's lazy effort against the 'Horns.
In fact, Williams said he'd bring them back in for a practice at midnight if NCAA rules allowed it.
"It's just a bad feeling right now in our locker room," said freshman big man Kennedy Meeks, who contributed nine points and six rebounds. "We just have to get ready for practice and the next game."