CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Texas coach Rick Barnes had a hunch that his team, despite a 9-1 start, hadn’t cultivated many believers outside of Austin. To prove it, he had an assistant fetch a copy of the top 25 polls to see if the Longhorns were at least among the “others receiving votes.”
Sure enough, the Longhorns received zero votes combined in the coaches and media poll.
“I said we’re not going to be taken seriously until we do something we’re not supposed to do,” Barnes said. “And I said you’ve got a chance this week and it starts [against UNC].”
Barnes and the young Longhorns got their validation with the 86-83 win over No. 14 North Carolina which will make them that much more confident to return home and face No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday.
It’s been a rough offseason for Barnes and the Longhorns. They lost their top four scorers from last season -- two turned professional and two transferred. He has also had to deal with rumblings that his 16th season could be his last if they miss the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.
Texas sophomore guard Javan Felix said the group of returning players, which excludes any seniors, made one promise entering this season.
“We refuse to let us have a season like last year,” Felix said. “As far as coach being on the hot seat, we hear people talk about it but it’s never talked about around the facility. We never touch on it at all. We just go out there and play as hard as we can for him.”
Certainly Texas wasn’t supposed to go into the Dean Smith Center and beat the Tar Heels.
Not with UNC coming off an 82-77 win over Kentucky, its third win over a ranked team this season. Not after the good news spread that senior Leslie McDonald, who missed the first nine games of the season due to NCAA rules violations, was finally cleared to play.
The storyline was supposed to be about McDonald’s 15 points off the bench in his return or his four 3-pointers against the Longhorns equaling the total made by any Carolina players not named Marcus Paige.
It seemed that McDonald would help finish off a triumphant return after the Heels rallied from down 11 in the second half to tie the game at 77 with two minutes left.
Texas sophomore guard Demarcus Holland said last season, Texas probably would have found a way to lose the lead completely in a game like this, but this team is nothing like last season’s that bickered its way to a losing record.
“It will open up some people’s eyes that Texas does have some fight this year and show them that Texas does have some players,” Holland said. “A lot of people underestimate us because of our season last year so we’re going to just try to keep moving and getting better.”
Texas played with the kind of urgency that the Heels didn’t have until the second half. By then it was too late.
“I’m not very pleased with our intensity, with our effort, with our concentration. I thought it was just ridiculous in the first half,” said UNC coach Roy Williams, who pointed to the 24-of-47 outing at the free throw line as an example of lack of focus. Williams added that he was tired of talking about free throws, that the Heels needed to be “tough enough to step up and make the dag-on thing or go play soccer.”
Williams was so put off by his team's effort, he initially threatened a midnight practice.
"We cannot practice until 5 a.m., and everybody’s [butt] will be in at 5 a.m. this morning," he said.
At Texas, Barnes actually includes toughness in his game plan.
“Our goal was to come in here and play harder than them. I think we did that for the most part,” Felix said. “We let up sometimes but we didn’t surprise ourselves. Our goal was to definitely come in here and try to get a win and we knew we could do it.”
The Longhorns rely on five sophomores to act as their veterans because they have just one junior, forward Jonathan Holmes, in their rotation. Against the Tar Heels it seemed as if each had his time to shine.
Forward Connor Lammert grabbed eight of his season-high 10 rebounds in the first half -- including six on the offensive end. He helped set a tone as the Horns outscored the Heels 21-12 on second-chance points. Thanks to a 14 rebound advantage in the first half, they also out-rebounded UNC 51-42.
Felix started 23 games last season until Myck Kabongo gained eligibility. Felix gave way to freshman Isaiah Taylor in the starting lineup against UNC, but came off the bench to score all 12 of his points in the second half.
Once Carolina tied the game at 72 with 4:06 left, it was Felix who scored on three of five possessions including a 3-pointer over Paige that gave the Horns’ an 82-77 lead with 1:06 left.
Holland punctuated the Horns’ effort not only for the game, but their character so far this season. He missed two free throws nursing a one-point lead with seven seconds left, but he gathered his own rebound for a basket that bounced high into the rim to make it a three-point game.
“It just shows how much character these guys have on this team and how much fight we have and how unselfish we are,” Holland said. “It just shows how if we stick together we can do big things in this program.”
And they have their first win that proves it.