North Carolina was making short work of Villanova Friday night in an NCAA Tournament second round game in Kansas City's Sprint Center before the Wildcats came alive and made things very interesting.
'Nova rallied from an early 20-point deficit to briefly take the lead in the second half, but UNC re-gained control down the stretch for a 78-71 victory which means a rematch with Kansas on Sunday at 5:15 pm eastern.
The arena was half empty as the teams tipped off, but by the time the Tar Heels (25-10) jumped out to an early 28-11 advantage over Villanova, the Sprint Center was filling up with Jayhawk fans.
Carolina built its lead behind solid defense, forcing several Villanova turnovers, and with on-the-mark shooting from Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock, among others.
By the time James Michael McAdoo connected on a face-up jumper at the 7:00 mark, the Tar Heels had a 20-point lead (32-12) and a 17-1 run, and it looked like smooth sailing into Sunday's Round of 32.
But Villanova showed they they weren't going to be dominated and have their season ended in such embarrassing fashion, as the Wildcats put together a brilliant 17-5 run of its own in the latter stages of the first half to pull within eight (37-29) at the break.
Carolina got complacent on both ends late in the half, allowing 'Nova to kick-start its offense and chisel into the Tar Heel advantage.
"They (Villanova) got to be a heck of a lot more aggressive than we did, and we got silly with the basketball and turned it over. They were much more aggressive defensively, and their defense was a heck of a lot stronger than our offense was," said UNC head coach Roy Williams about Villanova's 12-point swing late in the first half.
In the second half 'Nova kept right on coming at the Tar Heels, putting together an 11-3 run out of the locker room to tie the game at 40-40 and prompting a five-for-five substitution by an angry Williams.
For a couple minutes Williams went with Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson, J.P. Tokoto, Luke Davis, and Leslie McDonald while Williams calmly reminded his starters of the moment and what was at stake while benched.
"He (Coach Williams) basically just told us to pick it up. He put those five in, and he just them to just play hard. And he came to us and told us to start double-teaming on the post, and that ended up working out for us," said Hairston about the mass substitution.
Williams returned the starters to a game a couple minutes later, but not before Villanova took its first lead (44-42) since taking an early 4-3 advantage in the opening minutes.
It was a ripe time for UNC's young squad to fold up and choke under the pressure but they refused to do so, as the three-headed monster of McAdoo, Bullock, and P.J. Hairston kept the Tar Heels in control.
Around the six-minute mark of the second half UNC connected on three straight three-pointers, including two by Hairston, to take a 63-54 lead at the 5:07 mark, and by the 3:03 mark UNC had scored a total of 13 points over a stretch of five possessions to lead 67-59.
But just when it looked like the Tar Heels had finally salted away the Wildcats the 'Cats put together another rally, scoring seven unanswered points aided by two critical UNC turnovers to get back within a single point, 67-66.
It was yet another time when Carolina could have easily panicked, but freshman point guard Marcus Paige calmly stepped up and drained a wide-open three-pointer along the left wing to preserve the UNC lead at 70-66.
Paige's late shot was a game-changer, as it kept Villanova from taking the lead as it scored on its next possession, and it gave UNC strategic control in the final two minutes as Villanova was forced to foul.
Hairston put a final nail in Villanova's coffin with a three-point play with just 42 seconds left, making the score 76-68 and allowing UNC to withstand one last Wildcat three-pointer.
"We ended up with the victory. We hit some big shots," said Hairston.
The victory marks the eleventh straight time going back to the 2000 Tournament in which the Tar Heels won its first NCAA game. UNC didn't make the Big Dance in 2002, 2003, and 2010, but haven't lost its first NCAA Tournament game since that infamous loss to Weber State back in 1999 in Seattle.
Hall of Famer Williams also picked up his 700th career victory while improving to 23-0 all-time as a head coach in opening NCAA Tournament games.
"Everything's all forgiven at the end of the game," Williams said in a postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager. "We made some mistakes. We didn't compete as hard as we normally did there for about a 12-15 minute stretch, but we made some big shots with the game on the line."
"P.J. made a big three. Reggie made a big three. Marcus made a big three. And that's what you think about is guys stepping up and making big plays."
Hairston led all scorers with 23 points for the Tar Heels, one of four UNC players in double figures in scoring. McAdoo tallied 17 points, Bullock 15 points, and Paige 14 points in Carolina's winning effort.
It was another gutsy effort for Hairston, who played through the hits and the pain of his injured left hand to lead Carolina back to the win column.
"It (the hand) doesn't really affect me at all. I just play through it. It got hit a couple times this game, but I didn't want to show any pain or anything," Hairston said.
"For Sunday I'll keep it wrapped like this. They told me I'd get the stitches out by Monday."
Villanova was led by sophomore JayVaughn Pinkston's 20 points, 18 points from fellow sophomore Darrun Hilliard, and 17 points from senior Mouphtaou Yarou, although as a team the Wildcats shot a dreadful four-for-21 from three-point land for the game.
UNC, on the other hand, shot a healthy 52.4 percent (11 of 21) from outside, which was a big reason why they were able to avoid an epic meltdown to see another day.