CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – His team trailing by five points to seventh-ranked Wisconsin with 13 minutes left Wednesday night, North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes knew it was test time.
“Thinking back to the UNLV game, that’s the area where you go down 12, or come back and tie the game,’’ the preseason All-American said, referring to the Saturday night upset that knocked his team from atop the polls. “That’s the area where you find out whether you learned something from that loss.”
Apparently, UNC did.
Behind a 20-point effort from Barnes – 10 of which came during the ensuing, decisive 18-5 run – plus 17 rebounds from John Henson and a solid defensive effort by Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland (who combined to hold star Badgers guard Jordan Taylor to 6-for-20 shooting), the fifth-ranked Tar Heels ground out a 60-57 victory. It marked the first loss of the season for Wisconsin (6-1).
UNC didn’t play well for stretches, and the game wasn’t particularly pretty. But Carolina’s second-half surge was enough to restore confidence in a club that had been outrebounded for two consecutive games (but beat Wisconsin on the boards by 13), had allowed the Runnin’ Rebels to hit too many outside shots (but held the Badgers to 8-for-28 from 3-point land), and had been worried about the status of Barnes after he sprained his right ankle Saturday.
“[It was] a little stiff before I got it going, ’’ Barnes, who also chipped in three rebounds, said of his injury. “But once adrenaline set in, it was fine.”
Indeed, UNC coach Roy Williams had predicted a big game from his leading scorer, even telling Barnes’ mother earlier in the day, "Your son’s going to have a big basketball game tonight."
And the sophomore’s ankle looked fine about midway through the second half, after forward Ryan Evans’ bucket gave the Badgers a 36-31 lead.
It had been a teeth-clenching game before that, with each team trying to force its style upon the other – Wisconsin's deliberate, UNC’s fast-paced – with varying success. Carolina (6-1) had led by as many as nine points in the first half, allowed that to slip away, and seemed to be slipping farther out onto a precipice that Barnes was referring to earlier.
“The momentum was going their way,’’ Barnes said. “We had to get something going.”
Sensing, too, that his team needed a jump-start, Williams ran a set play for Barnes called “Quick.”
“He made a 3, and that seemed to get him energized,’’ Williams said.
So much so, Barnes followed that 3 with a 2. Then added a couple of free throws. Then another 3.
"At the end of games, it's like he gets better,'' Henson said. "That's just what he does."
In all, Barnes contributed 10 points to an 18-5 run that put the Tar Heels ahead 49-41. They wouldn't trail again, although the Badgers kept most UNC fans in their seats until the end, chipping a 10-point lead to three in the final minute.
“That was as hard a fought game as I have ever been in as a coach,’’ said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose team was led by Taylor’s 18 points, but only shot 35.9 percent as a whole.
Said Williams: “Like I told Bo, ‘I’m glad I don’t play you anymore.’ It was a difficult game for us."
But a good one. Several Tar Heels said their Saturday loss was a wake-up call, a realization that they had to make improvements – or else. There’s still plenty more to build upon, they say, but withstanding this game, even if it wasn’t perfect, was a step (and victory) in the right direction.
“Thinking back to the UNLV game, we weren’t tough enough to get that win,’’ Barnes said. “… That game was the education, and tonight was translating it from what you learned from that [game] into this one. So it was good to see that. This was a test, and we passed today.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.