CHAPEL HILL - The crowd at the Smith Center sounded like it was watching a rivalry game or a big conference showdown.
In a way, this game was nearly as important.
What the fans here actually witnessed was No. 25 North Carolina unable to pull away but finally squeaking out a 74-69 win against College of Charleston.
In getting the victory, the Tar Heels (4-2) avoided reliving the painful memory of losing to the Cougars (4-3) last season on the road, a game that sent their season spiraling down the drain.
"I think the crowd felt the same way that we did," sophomore guard Dexter Strickland said. "Just going out there thinking about the season we had last year, we had to give it our all."
John Henson scored a career-high 19 points for the Tar Heels, including two big baskets during the 8-0 run that UNC used to finally get some breathing room down the stretch in the second half.
Andrew Goudelock, the hero of last year's Charleston win, scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half and gave the Tar Heels a sickening case of déjà vu for a while.
At one point, the senior guard scored 13 straight Cougar points to give them a 48-43 lead.
But the Tar Heels stuck with their plan of getting the ball inside, where Henson and Tyler Zeller, who had eight points and 10 rebounds, went to work on the smaller Cougars.
In a game with nine ties and 11 lead changes, Carolina eventually got even with Charleston and then took the lead for good with 7:27 to go.
That's when the mix of murmurs and gasps that had filled the arena most of the night finally turned into the kind of exuberant cheers usually reserved for big-name games.
"We hadn't had a big-time game like that where we had to have stops," Henson said. "I'm glad we could get emotionally invested because (Goudelock) hit some big shots. That was a test of our tougness."
It wasn't just the crowd that found itself geared up for the Cougars once it was clear this would not be an easy win. The Carolina players who were here last season came into this game talking about it like it was on par with a rivalry game.
The first half was enough to remind everyone else in the building just why the Tar Heels felt so threatened by the Cougars.
Carolina led 28-27 at the break, with both teams shooting below 40 percent.
On top of that, the Cougars outrebounded the Tar Heels 21-19 and stuck close despite shooting just 3 for 11 from 3-point range.
Goudelock, the star of Charleston's 82-79 win in 2009, didn't get his first points until the 3:22 mark of the first half but picked up the pace enough to outshine his 2009 performance against the Heels.
In that game, Goudelock scored 24 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime.
For a while it looked like he might doom Carolina all over again.
That was scary for the Tar Heels considering that worse than last year's loss itself was how it sent the Tar Heels into a free fall, kicking off a stretch in which they lost eight of 10 games.
This time, the Heels were able to withstand Goudelock's inevitable barrage, which included five made 3-pointers.
And more importantly, they were able to avoid the type of loss that can break a season before it's even had a chance to get going.
"I thought our team, in the second half, came together more as a team," said coach Roy Williams, who collected his 200th win at Carolina. "I loved our poise."