CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.--- In what has become a somewhat familiar theme this winter, North Carolina found itself trailing on the road against a fired-up team Saturday afternoon. And once again the Tar Heels had to step it up a notch defensively in the second half of a must-win game to stay atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
And once again the Tar Heels responded, holding Virginia to just 21 second half points as Carolina escaped from John Paul Jones Arena with a 54-51 win that keeps them tied atop the league standings with Duke with identical 12-2 records and just two regular season games left.
"It's a tough race between us and Duke atop the ACC, and to be able to get a good road win like this, it definitely gives us a lot of confidence going into Wednesday," said Harrison Barnes, who had seven points and nine rebounds for the Tar Heels.
"It was a tough ass game," said UNC head coach Roy Williams.
"It was an extremely competitive, and yet somewhat ugly basketball game, but you've got to congratulate both teams defensively, because I thought both teams played so hard defensively. It was a struggle for us to find a play to run, find a shot that we could make," Williams continued.
UNC senior big man and ACC Player of the Year candidate Tyler Zeller scored Carolina's first 10 points over the game's opening six minutes, helping the Tar Heels build an early nine-point lead (17-8).
Zeller finished with 20 points on seven-of-11 shooting and a perfect six-of-six from the free throw line, and added six rebounds, one assist, and one blocked shot.
"'Z' was huge for us," said Coach Williams. "We tried to get the basketball to him, and his play was big. 'Z' carried us a great deal of the time today, to say the least."
Zeller helped Carolina get off to a fast start, but then Virginia got going with a basket by Jontel Evans and a three-pointer by Paul Jesperson. The Cavaliers continued to pour on the heat, making four more field goals quickly to complete a 17-5 run and take a 25-22 lead with just over three minutes left in the first half,
Then senior guard Sammy Zeglinski made back-to-back field goals in the final minute---including a lunging three-pointer at the buzzer---to give Virginia a 30-26 halftime advantage.
With UNC failing to score on nine of its final eleven possessions of the period, UVa ended the first half on a 22-9 run.
Carolina came out of the locker room and got five quick points to cut the Virginia lead to 32-31 in the opening minutes of the second half, but then the Cavaliers scored five straight points of their own to regain a 37-31 advantage.
But Virginia would score just 14 points over the game's final 17 minutes, as UNC tightened the screws on defense.
"It was a situation (in the second half) where we had to get stops, and I thought that everyone did a great job and really stepped up big. I thought we all committed (to defense) in the second half," said Barnes.
"We just picked it up on defense. They went cold. It was a game of runs, and fortunately we came out with the win," added John Henson, who posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. "I think we get more focused, especially when we're down in the second half. We made some plays tonight, and we were fortunate to get the win."
Having gone through similar situations earlier this season was admittedly a benefit to the Tar Heel players as they fought their way to another win away from Chapel Hill.
"It (knowing we can come back on the road) helps you kind of remain calm when you get down. You know you've still got a chance until the end. You've just got to keep chipping away and trying to retake the lead, and once the four-minute mark hits you've got to be extremely focused and just do everything perfectly," Zeller said.
UNC caught a fortunate break in the second half when Virginia star Mike Scott picked up his fourth foul on Henson---a foul that set off the UVa faithful with a loud chorus of boos, but a foul that the Tar Heels thought was fair, even if Henson may have acted a little.
"We got him (Scott) in foul trouble, and it ultimately helped us in the end," said Henson. "I got hit (on Scott's fourth foul). You can go back to the tape or whatever. It was just kind of one of those things where I didn't stop going after the ball. I might have gave a little Manu Ginobili, but it is what it is."
"He (Henson) went back because there was an elbow in his face. They (the officials) went over and looked at it because they were trying to see if it was something else. I don't think John's that good of an actor. I'm not saying it was flagrant or anything, but it was a foul," added Coach Williams.
"It's tough to sit on the bench for a long period of time and then come back in and play. It kind of messes with your rhythm," said Zeller, speaking of Scott.
The Cavaliers stayed ahead until the 11:03 mark of the final period, when UNC rookie P.J. Hairston made just his second three-pointer in his last eight games, giving the Tar Heels a 42-41 lead.
Down the stretch the teams spent some time trading the lead back and forth, and neither team led by more than three points late.
But Carolina continued to play solid defense.
And even on those opportunities---and there were a couple---in which Virginia got open looks in the final minutes, they weren't able to convert.
"A lot of it was determination. You knew that they (Virginia) were going to set a lot of screens. You knew they were going to try to move around so shooters could get wide open. The guards had to do a good job getting around screens," said Barnes. "We had to do a good job spacing, moving around, and doing better late-game execution than we have in the past."
One real key for UNC down the stretch was the fact that the Tar Heels made 18 of 23 free throw attempts (78.3 percent), while Virginia was just three-of-six (50 percent) from the line.
Henson was particularly crucial from the charity stripe for Carolina, making seven of eight.
"I found my stroke on the line, just how it felt to go in. I've been working on it a lot. We hit our free throws, and ultimately it helped us win the game," said Henson.
Carolina had a three-point lead (52-49) before a UNC turnover led to a Virginia basket at the three-minute mark, but then UNC got another lift from Zeller, who got the ball late in the shot clock, pump-faked a UVa defender, and threw down a left-handed tomahawk dunk.
"We had a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers late, and yet Z made a big-time play," said Williams.
Ironically Zeller wasn't even supposed to get the ball on that particular play, but he took advantage when it wound up going to him.
"The play we ran (that resulted in the dunk), I was actually the one person who was not supposed to be an option to score---I was a screener---and I ended up with the ball. I just did a shot-fake and went around him (the UVa defender), and I decided to go up as strong as possible in case he decided to jump," Zeller said.
In the final minute UNC, leading by three, used several of the fouls it had to give to throw off Virginia's ability to set up an offensive play, but ultimately the Cavaliers got a wide-open look for Malcolm Brogdon, but he was unable to connect.
UNC had a chance to put the game away from the free throw line but Barnes missed, setting up one final chance for the Cavaliers. The ball went to Zeglinski and he got a good look, but the ball rimmed out, and with it dashed away Virginia's chances of pulling the upset.
"We kept getting good shots and missing them, and then we screwed up on the defensive end and let Zeglinski get a wide-open shot from the corner that Reggie (Bullock) challenged late, and we were very lucky that it didn't go in. That's the bottom line," said Williams.
"We had fouls (to give), so we wanted to try to use them and not give them too much time to run a play. With two or three seconds left and Harrison was on the line for a one-on-one up three, I thought that was it, but we still gave them another chance."
"We were very, very lucky," Williams continued.
"It was a tough game, but we were able to pull it out," added Zeller.
So now it comes down to two games for North Carolina.
Beat Maryland Wednesday in the Smith Center, and the Tar Heels are assured of a winner-take-all showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium against Duke with the outright ACC regular season title on the line.
As well as determining who will get the top seed in the ACC Tournament in Atlanta two weekends from now, the second Tar Heel-Blue Devil showdown will almost certainly have implications on NCAA Tournament seeding.
The table is set for Carolina to control their own destiny and still earn a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
The Tar Heel players don't want to overlook the Terrapins, who gave them a tough game in College Park earlier this month, but naturally they're hoping they'll get another crack at the hated Blue Devils with the league title at stake.
"It comes down to these last two games, and a ring is at stake. You can't overlook a team. Our focus right now is Maryland, and trying to get focused for these last two games of the season," said Barnes.
"We've got to go beat Maryland. The Duke game could be for it all, as it was last year. That's how it should be, I guess," added Henson.